It wasn't supposed to be this hard. Coming off a disappointing home loss to the Houston Rockets the Hawks were supposed to bounce back against the lowly Sacramento Kings with an encouraging performance. More so the defensive woes that plagued the team against Houston had been addressed so there was no way that the team would come out without a more concise defensive effort? Right? Well not exactly.
When asked about his team's defensive performance in the first half, Hawks coach Larry Drew used the terms embarrassing and soft. If there is a lesson to be learned from this game it was, as coach Drew pointed out in his post game press session, that in the NBA you can not look past an opponent no matter their record. This isn't high school and is not even college. This game was a perfect example of letting an opponent get the juices flowing offensively and then finding out how hard it is to shut them down after they are rolling. Now I am not suggesting that the Kings are even remotely comparable to tonight's opponent, but they do a have a roster full of professional players and sometimes as fans we forget just how good you have to be to play at this level. The challenge for these Hawks when dealing with teams like the Kings is to take them out of the game from the outset. No one team is perfect at this but that in my mind is what separates teams like Boston and San Antonio from teams like Atlanta. Those teams crush a team like Sacramento's spirit in the opening minutes. Atlanta all too often toys with an opponent by not clamping down and makes things much harder for themselves in the long run.
One very good example of making things harder on themselves is the fact that four of the Hawks five starters played 40+ minutes in this game. As much as we talk about minutes around here I am not complaining because had they not played those minutes Atlanta would have lost this game. Ideally you would have liked to have seen them take care of business early and get some late rest before heading to Miami after the game. I don't think they will have any trouble getting up for tonight's game and I think the energy will be there, but over the course of an 82 game season it has an impact. Especially when injuries have already played a big part.
The one saving grace for the Hawks the last couple of games has been their offensive production while their defense has floundered. Atlanta once again found themselves in a shoot out during the first half trailing 62-53 at the break. If you look back at the second quarter in particular, it took 14 Joe Johnson points to keep the Hawks heads above water.
The third quarter began and the Hawks energy level improved slightly. As I pointed out earlier though it is hard to slow down a team once they have found a rhythm. By the time the third quarter ended, Atlanta had played the Kings to a stalemate with both teams scoring twenty points and still trailed by nine going to the final quarter. A couple of times during the period, the Hawks were able to close the gap only to see a turnover, or an offensive rebound derail their efforts.
Atlanta finally got over the hump in the fourth quarter. After trading baskets early, they locked down the Kings holding them scoreless for over four minutes while going on a 13-0 run. When the run started the Hawks trailed 86-80, by the time the Kings scored again Atlanta was ahead 93-86. After a Josh Smith three pointer gave the Hawks a 96-90 lead with 3:18 to go in the game it appeared that they once again relaxed. It was at this point that the Kings switched to a zone defense and it appeared to me that the Hawks had a hard time recognizing it. I say that because usually when a team plays zone against Atlanta they will run Al Horford or Josh Smith to the high post. They never did that in the waining moments of this game instead looking content to dribble out the shot clock and force up a long jump shot.
Just three possessions later this game was once again tied at 96 all. Joe Johnson scored against the zone on a nifty reverse lay in with 23 seconds remaining giving the Hawks back the lead at 98-96. After a Kings time out, the Hawks emerged from the huddle with their "defensive" lineup on the floor with Damien Wilkins and Mo Evans replacing Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby. I think it was a good idea to make those substitutions there but I didn't like the way the Hawks matched up. Damien Wilkins drew Tyreke Evans who is a tough match-up period but especially for a guy that had been sitting on the bench the entire half. Evans blew by Wilkins for a lay in to tie the game at 98 with 11.6 left.
After an Atlanta time out, the Hawks spread the floor and gave the ball to Joe Johnson who had scored 34 points to that point. Joe dribbled the clock down before making his move and getting fouled by Evans with just 0.6 left on the clock. Johnson made both free throws giving the Hawks a 100-98 lead. The Kings had one last chance to tie the game and had Evans open going to the basket but DeMarcus Cousins air mailed the pass out of bounds sealing the win for the Hawks.
Joe Johnson led all scorers with 36 points on 16-27 shooting while adding 5 rebounds and 5 assists with no turnovers. Al Horford had an awesome line of 23 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and a career high 7 blocked shots. Jekyl and Hyde game for Josh Smith but he finished with a solid 19 points and 10 rebounds while doing most of his damage late in that fourth quarter. Mike Bibby tossed in 11 points against his former club.
DeMarcus Cousins led the Kings with 20 points and 8 rebounds before getting frustrated in the fourth quarter. Beno Udrih was killing the Hawks before a Zaza Pachulia hard foul sent him to the floor. Udrih returned but didn't score again finishing with 17 points. Tyreke Evans and Jason Thompson both scored 16 for the Hawks.
For all of the harping that I did on the Hawks lack of defense and rebounding in this game I want to point out one other area of concern. The Hawks got absolutely zilch from their bench in this game. Granted the starters were on the floor for a lot of this game but they had to be with the way the bench played. Atlanta got 10 total points from its reserves and while +/- stats I don't think are really indicative in a one game setting the Hawks reserves minus Jamal Crawford who plays starters minutes were a collective -41 in this one. Atlanta's bench isn't gifted with an abundance of scorers without including Jamal Crawford but they have to be able to hold their own and play key minutes when called upon.
No one will write that this was a great win and you won't hear me say that it was. Still it would have been a much worse loss. Hopefully there was something to be learned here but haven't we said that before?