This match-up between Atlanta and Brooklyn had plenty of importance from the moment the schedule came out being the first return trip for the former six-time Hawks all-star Joe Johnson to Philips Arena since being traded. By Tuesday night, there was added importance in the Eastern Conference standings with the Nets streaking (9-1 in their last 10) past the Hawks who had been plummeting (3-7 in their last 10) and had been embarrassed on Monday scoring just 58 points in Chicago. Wednesday morning added another wrinkle/storyline to the mix as Josh Smith was suspended for the game and fined an undisclosed amount for "conduct detrimental to the team." All of that build up led to one of the laughers of the season in favor of the Hawks.
Atlanta came out focused and energized from the start, jumping out on the Nets and never letting them have the lead or even tie the game. The Hawks held a 27-20 advantage after the first quarter and steadily improved it throughout the second and third quarter behind great play from the entire team before coasting down the stretch to the 14-point victory. The Hawks looked, for the first time in a long while, like the team that went on a hot streak in December by forcing turnovers, running the break, getting to the rim, and moving the basketball. Atlanta shot 57.7% from the field and 38.1% from the three-point arc and had six players finish in double figures (almost seven; Ivan finished with eight). They had 33 assists on their 45 made baskets, out-rebounded the Nets 41-37, and had 29 fast-break points.
Three players stood out on the night. Jeff Teague set the tone for the Hawks and set a new career-high with 28 points along with 11 assists. Zaza Pachulia had a near triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-high eight assists. Al Horford had his 20th double-double of the season with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Teague had his most complete game of the season. He played energized on both ends of the floor and really pushed the tempo to get the Hawks running. Teague was extremely efficient, shooting 12-of-18 from the field and 3-of-5 from the three-point line. He cut down on his turnovers with only two and was the aggressor on offense throughout the game. This was one of the few games in which Teague showed the energy and aggression for the entire 37 minutes he was on the floor without having those ever-frustrating lapses in effort that have maligned an otherwise solid season.
What Jeff Teague did for the energy level of the backcourt, Zaza Pachulia did so for the frontcourt. Pachulia earned the starting nod with Smoove's suspension and did not disappoint. He played 39 minutes (the most of anyone) and was effective for the Hawks in all phases. On the boards, he combined with Horford to limit the Nets' ability to pull down rebounds (admittedly Lopez is no Bill Russell on the glass, but still) and it was Zaza's offensive game that was most impressive.
He was able to score and facilitate while not turning the ball over (2 TOs) and he was effective in not only looking for the extra pass (he always does) but delivering the ball to the right option on target (that's the part that sometimes doesn't work out). No dime was sweeter than a little no-look behind the back drop-off to Al for a jumper in the third quarter that was the final pass in a string of great passes that exemplified the Hawks night. After the game, Zaza joked that he should have had a triple-double, but his teammates "just wouldn't hit those last two shots." As for the team's performance, Zaza couldn't have been happier.
"Yes, that was the number one key actually, to play with energy to play up tempo. I think our guards did a great job, all of them, to push the ball and we had to keep up with them and run as well as big guys. We played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, we were sharing the ball beautifully. I was just trying to play within the game plan. Sharing the ball, that was huge, we had 33 assists. It was great everybody was touching the ball, moving from side to side, and we were getting easier shots and that's why we scored so much. With my assists, my teammates were making shots, except for the last two."
Al Horford was expected to need to take on a larger role in the offense in Josh's absence, but, in true Horford style, he continued to play his game and didn't force himself into a bigger role than he needed to be taking 12 shots. Horford led the team with his 13 rebounds and his defense on Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries was very solid. Al knew this was a game the Hawks had to have and pointed to the great play of the guards as the catalyst for this performance.
"It was very important. We've been on the road a lot, we've been struggling as a team, so to get a win in this type of way was really big for us. No question, it was about [Jeff Teague] picking up his energy, Devin as well, and when you have those two guys that have the potential they have, it puts our team on a whole different level. Against the Jazz we played well, but this is different. Our practice on Tuesday was the best all year, and tonight showed why. Our focus was better and we just have to keep that up."
Devin Harris also had a big night for the Hawks as he looked to be back in rhythm and at full speed again, as he was against the Jazz last Friday. Devin finished with 18 points, five assists, and led the team with four steals. His energy on the defensive end really helped get the Hawks going early as he pushed the pace and got the Hawks on the break including taking an outlet pass the length of the court for a lay-up on the first Hawks possession of the game. His play seemed to keep Teague energized as well as the two fed off each other, which trickled down to the rest of the team who ran up and down the floor all night at a great pace.
"We got stops and were able to get numbers early on and the lead grew for us and that's when we're at our best. We make it a point of emphasis, that was a big part of our practice yesterday was making sure guys were getting out and running and filling the lanes. We came out and executed. We just needed a win, guys just wanted to come out and be aggressive, we were embarrassed after last game and wanted to come out and get a win."
Joe Johnson's return to the Philips Arena floor he called home for seven years was a forgettable one for the former Hawks great (yes, he is one of the best Hawks ever). Johnson was pressured throughout the game by guards, trapping bigs, and the crowd and he struggled, shooting just 4-of-15 from the field to score 15 points. Prior to the game Larry Drew said that Joe was too good of a 1-on-1 player to leave him isolated (*insert Iso-Joe joke here*) on one defender and the Hawks would have to help out and double Joe at times. They did so aggressively and relentlessly and kept Joe out of his comfort zone all night. Drew, Harris, and Horford all talked about the commitment to playing Brooklyn's guards, especially Joe, aggressively on the perimeter.
"Joe's a terrific player and he's a guy that commands a double-team," said Drew. "We wanted to be aggressive with him early, and I thought our guys did a good job. We actually random trapped him a few times where it wasn't necessarily the gameplan, but it was aggressive and it got us active. Our guys were really in tune and in the right spots and you have to be when you double-team."
"We just wanted to keep him out of rhythm," said Devin. "Obviously they know Joe really well playing here for so many years, and we kept him off balance pretty much all night. The bigs did a great job making themselves big and making him take tough shots."
"Just help defense. We were just helping out there, being active," said Al. "You know that's a great team over there, they've got guys that can score the ball, post the ball, and we're a different team and we have to be more active and that was our focus tonight."
The win clearly picked up the spirits of the locker room and the feeling seemed to be less of exuberance and excitement, but instead more relief and optimism that the losing streak is done and they can get back to playing this kind of basketball. They'll be tested again this weeked as on Friday as they go to Brooklyn for a quick rematch before welcoming the Spurs to town on Saturday night, and the hope is that they can carry over this type of energetic performance to their next games. Al Horford summed it up best after the game, and seemed to think the Hawks may have refound their edge.
"Oh I love it [running on the fast-break]. That's my style of play all day, I like to get out and play like that. I think we found something here so we have to keep this intensity."