After a big 104-95 road victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night, the Atlanta Hawks returned to the practice floor this morning for a light practice which Larry Drew said was, "more of a mental day." The Hawks put shots up early, went back in and watched film, and then came out to run through sets. They will get back to full practice with contact tomorrow as they prepare for Eastern Conference foe Indiana. Josh Smith did not participate in the practice portion, doing some rehab work on the side instead, but did put some shots up early and watched film with the team. His status is still unknown for Wednesday's game against the Pacers, and Drew would not speculate about the possibility of him playing.
The mood of the team was light but focused coming off the win. They ran through offensive and defensive sets to continue to tighten them up for regular game play. The improvements from Friday's loss to Houston and Sunday's win in OKC were drastic as the Hawks defense improved, but more importantly the rebounding got much better. Atlanta out-rebounded the Thunder 38-37 (12-7 on the offensive glass), which was much better than the Houston game when they were pounded 58-36 (23-7 OR). Zaza Pachulia was a big factor in the win, spoke about the change in focus on the glass.
"The first game was terrible rebounding. We struggled, especially on the perimeter, they were getting wide open rebounds and put-backs. When we watched the tape it was obvious and nobody's stupid here, we're honest with our mistakes and I'm glad we went out and executed [last night]."
Zaza led the team in assists (something he didn't know) with six last night and his reaction was priceless.
"Well shame on our point guards first of all. I felt pretty good; somebody asked me before the game since Josh was out was I going to do anything extra, and I said definitely not, I'm going to stay with my game plan. I got a good amount of minutes and defensively and offensively be involved. Maybe I didn't have a good night scoring the ball, but I had six assists and that makes me more excited than scoring the ball."
As for the defensive effort, the Hawks limited the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to 12-of-35 shooting (34.3%) and 36 points. The Thunder also only had 38 points in the paint (compared to 50 for Houston on Friday) and six second-chance points (15 for Rockets on Fri.). Zaza attributed that change to an increase in the team's comfort level with each other.
"We played better defensively. In the first game we kind of didn't know what was going on, we looked confused honestly. Last night, was way better, we had a few mistakes, but no one's perfect. It was a total team effort on both ends of the floor."
Another factor in the defensive improvement was the Hawks zone, which looked vastly improved from the preseason and Friday's opener. Larry Drew and DeShawn Stevenson both pointed to that as one of the changes that helped the Hawks' defense and perimeter rebounding improve from game one to game two.
When I asked Drew about the zone he responded, "You noticed! We did, we went into the game with a defined game-plan and we wanted to try and dictate the pace and rhythm of the game and zone allows you to do that. So, yeah, we did have more zone possessions yesterday, some were good sometimes it wasn't. It was good enough that it had the effect we were hoping for."
"Coach told us without Smoove we'd be running more zone, and in the zone your shooting guards and point guards have to rebound," said DeShawn. "So going in I was conscious that I'd have to get rebounds, I had five, and other guys had a lot of rebounds. We need that when we play zone, but the zone looked like man so it was a good zone."
The Hawks closed out the fourth quarter nicely and it is clear that Lou Williams will take Joe Johnson's old role as the team's "closer." Lou hit big shots and got inside and forced contact late to get himself the foul line where he shot 89%. While Lou closed it out, Al Horford stepped up big in Josh's absence scoring 23 and pulling down 12 boards. DeShawn talked about the overall team effort in the fourth quarter.
"Lou-Will did an awesome job putting the pressure on and I think Al did too. Zaza did a great job passing and I hit some big shots. I think we just played together. The first game we were a little nervous about our offense, but we went out there and played within ourselves."
As for the Hawks' rotation, Drew is still trying to find his best lineups, and he is changing his rotation on the fly pending whose hot and what he sees in these first few weeks.
"I think from a coaching standpoint you're gonna ride the hot hand, I don't care who it is. You get in the situation where someone's playing well and in a rhythm and is having a good quarter, you ride them. The last thing you want to do is disrupt the flow particularly if your team is in a good rhythm, and icing the hot guy will do that. Last night, it was Lou. He got into a real good groove and I had Jeff sittin over there and it came down to the decision whether to get those guys in the game, or ride those guys out. My decision was to ride them, we were in a great position to win the game and I didn't want to disrupt that."
Last night, Anthony Morrow and Ivan Johnson played great, and Drew really liked what he got out of them.
"Both guys did a phenomenal job, other than that three-pointer that Ivan took in front of our bench, but he was really good. He did a phenomenal job rebounding the ball and you just felt his presence when he was out on the floor. A-Mo came in and did a really good job as well, defended Durant well, which I was a little surprised, and I told him this morning I was a little surprised, and I want more from him.
I pressed Drew about their minutes and whether we could expect them to play some more.
"Yeah possibly, going forward possibly. Both guys probably deserve minutes, but I just can't play everybody. We'll keep our eyes on matchups and hopefully we can get both guys more time."
Even though he's a banger and the Hawks physical presence on the inside, Zaza loves the new style of basketball and it has energized and excited him and the rest of the team.
"It was so much fun to play this kind of basketball, and everyone felt the same way. We talked about it before practice, it was a fun game."
The Hawks team chemistry already through just two games seems to be higher than at any time in recent memory. The guys seem to truly enjoy playing together, as Zaza exemplified, and they have more fun with each other off the court and after practice than we've seen with previous teams. Shooting competitions, trash-talking, and joking with each other is now the norm rather than the exception and it's coming from everyone. Veterans, young guys, team leaders, role players; everyone seems to genuinely enjoy being around each other and that is carrying over onto the court.