Monday, April 25, 2011
That was Great, Part One
I got a kick out of going for a run and listening to Bill Simmons' playoff preview podcast yesterday. Much of the discussion was about how great the Heat-Celtics and Bulls-Magic series would be in the East. Simmons was incredulous when John Hollinger gave the Hawks a chance against the Magic, even when Hollinger explained that Jason Collins gave the Hawks a chance because of his ability to get under Dwight Howard's skin. I'll admit that incredulity is the right response whenever Jason Collins is mentioned as the key to anything, but lo and behold, the regular season was not a fluke. The Hawks went 3-1 against the Magic in the season and are now up 3-1 in the playoffs.
Despite the regular season series, this playoff series is still jarring to me. The last Hawks game I attended was game three against the Magic last year. That game (combined with the resulting decisions to keep the roster intact by mortgaging the future for Joe Johnson and to promote Larry Drew to head coach) killed my affection for the team. Judging by attendance this year, I'm certainly not alone in that feeling. It's quite a turn of events to go from being swept by 101 points to being 3-1 and having been in charge for most or all of all four games. Again, I'm not the only one who has this feeling, as the crowds for games three and four have been outstanding. Hawks fans aren't consistent in our support, but if the team gives us a reason (like, say, winning game one in Orlando), we're perfectly capable of making Philips a hostile venue for a visitor.
(Related point: Joe Johnson had some nerve to criticize the fans after his woeful performance against the Magic last year. He evidently didn't learn his lesson because Ric Bucher relayed in a sideline report on Friday that Johnson told him that Johnson was hoping that there would be more Hawks fans than Magic fans at the game. I can say from first-hand experience that there were not a lot of Magic fans at the series last spring. The Magic fans might have seemed louder because it's hard to cheer when you're down 52-33 at the half.)
To me, the 180 degree reversal is down to three factors. First, as mentioned before, the Jason Collins effect is significant. Atlanta Spirit gets rightly criticized for not rounding out the roster with useful bench pieces, but Collins has proven himself to be useful against Orlando, so that's something. Second, Larry Drew's decision not to double-team Howard has been a good one. Mike Woodson had Collins available and never used him in this role, instead employing the double-teaming strategy that never worked against the Magic. Third, going from Mike Bibby to Kirk Hinrich has been a major improvement defensively. The Magic got open threes against the Hawks in part because of doubling Dwight and in part because Jameer Nelson could get into the lane at will. The latter avenue is now gone. Nelson's assist numbers in this year's series are almost the same as his numbers from last year, but his shooting percentage has dropped from .565 to .355. That seems relevant in a series in which most of the games have been tight.
Just when I thought that I couldn't love Zaza any more, he goes and does this:
The leaning quasi-headbutt is a classic Euro soccer move. Jason Richardson never received the memo that the correct response would have been to throw himself to the floor as if hit by a cross-bow and then wait for the stretcher/blanket combo. I suspect that Zaza delivered three headbutts because he was so shocked at the lack of victim theatrics from Richardson after the first delivery. In the end, the Magic were denied their second-leading scorer for game four. The best part is that the whole fracas started because of a punk move by Howard, so the Hawks get to claim a piece of the moral high ground.
If Joe Johnson put on the worst contract-drive performance in last year's Orlando series, then Jamal Crawford is putting on one of the best. If the Hawks can re-up with Crawford for a reasonable price, then they should do so, but I suspect that the price is going too high with this performance. I suppose the decision will come down to how the Hawks finish out this series and then perform against the Bulls in round two. If the Hawks give a good account of themselves against the Bulls, then keeping the team together might make some sense. If not, then it will be clear that the Hawks simply had a hex on the Magic this year and a re-tool might be in the cards.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Hawks either take the Bulls to the limit or actually upset them and make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. This ought to be a great selling point for Atlanta Spirit to get the market re-engaged with the team. On the other hand, the Hawks will have performed at a high level in the playoffs after an uninspired regular season. So how do you sell tickets for next season when the lesson from this season is that nothing matters until the team turns on the jets in April?