What a difference a day makes. For the past week we have been chronicling the Hawks demise defensively and never once did a game like last night's win over the Heat seem possible. Those that follow this Hawks team on a consistent basis have seen time after time this team fold up when they have a difficult time making shots. Many will say they have seen them fold at the first sign of adversity. That wasn't what we saw last night in Miami. What we did see was a gritty defensive effort in the wake of a sub par offensive night. We saw the team dig deep after it lost its All Star center Al Horford to an ankle injury. Joe Johnson called it a sign of maturity after the game. Hawks fans everywhere can only hope that he is right.
We knew that coming into this game that Miami was a top five defensive club and no one should have been expecting the Atlanta Hawks to come in and have their way offensively with them. What was surprising was the gritty defensive effort that the Hawks were able to put on the Heat. In just this past week, the terms embarrassing and soft have been thrown around all too often and justifiably so when describing Atlanta's defensive effort. They were anything but that in tonight's game and I thought the tone was set defensively early when Joe Johnson forced Dwayne Wade to dribble the ball off of his foot in the opening possession.
Atlanta who has been suspect with their perimeter defense all season long, came up with a pretty good performance on the perimeter in this one. Joe Johnson did a good job shielding Wade and at time LeBron James as well. Josh Smith drew the opening assignment on James and also came up with a pretty good performance. More so when Wade or James did make a drive, the Hawks help defense rotated well on the drive and out to shooters. Many times they forced Miami to miss, sometimes they got lucky that the Heat shooters missed anyway.
Another big thing to take away from this game was that the Hawks had several opportunities to fold it up but didn't for whatever reason. They stuck it out through LeBron James and Dwayne Wade's endless parade to the free throw line and Al Horford's injury that took him out of the game for a large part of the second half. Consider that entering the fourth quarter the Hawks had attempted three free throws. They kept taking punches and kept delivering them back all the while positioning themselves to have a chance late. One such sequence was the Josh Smith dunk over Joel Anthony with the Hawks down six. That three point play cut the lead in half and did look like it rejuvenated the team.
Ultimately I could go through every single made basket, missed shot, and good defensive play down the stretch, but I don't think that was the story of this game. The biggest story of this game was the Hawks executing down the stretch in a pressure packed situation on both ends of the floor and doing so against a Miami team that was trying to play two on five. On the Hawks side, you had big plays from Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith. While on the other end it looked a lot like Cleveland last year where they just threw the ball to LeBron and everyone else moved out of the way. I feel like the Hawks defense played a huge part in that but Miami looked like a confused team coming down the stretch. When you have a player that is going to get the call each and every time no matter what, you probably don't want him chucking up 26 foot three point attempts with the game on the line. You probably would want him to play more to his strengths. James made a couple of big three point shots in overtime, but he missed two attempts in the last 10 seconds of overtime and neither could be categorized as great looks at the basket.
So as crazy as it may sound to those of us that follow the Atlanta Hawks daily, tonight the Hawks looked like the more cohesive unit. Even with Horford out, how many different Hawks hurt hurt the Heat in overtime? They got contributions from everyone from Mo Evans and Mike Bibby to the before mentioned Johnson, Crawford, and Smith trio? Now count how many Heat players hurt the Hawks down the stretch. For as good as Joel Anthony played defensively and on the glass (16 rebounds), James and Wade can't get him one shot attempt? Not one drive and dish dunk?
I went a little different from the norm on this recap but I felt like this wasn't your typical Hawks game. While I think it was played at playoff intensity the quality of the game wasn't playoff ready. Hats off to our team for turning in a blue collar effort in this one as we haven't been able to say that all too often. Maybe Joe Johnson was right. Maybe just maybe we saw some maturity from this team tonight. Only time will tell for sure. It is a long season and in the grand scheme of things in the league this game doesn't mean that much. However, to the Hawks it should mean a lot. The detractors are going to write that Miami was missing Bosh and that Wade and James were nursing injuries. The fact remains that the Hawks went into Miami and beat the second best team in the Eastern Conference without Marvin Williams and without Al Horford for a lot of the second half and all of overtime. How many times have we been able to say that over the last few seasons?