The Hawks pretty much answered every test in this game on their way to an 85-82 victory. When the Magic hit them, they hit back, when it was time to dig in on defense, they dug in. Magic fans reading this might think, what is the big deal? Isn't that what you are supposed to do? Yes actually it is but we haven't always been able to say that about these Atlanta Hawks. When Atlanta is involved in a nip and tuck game like tonight's, I often find myself wondering if one offensive spurt by the opposing team could send the Hawks to another 20 point loss. All too often this season, the snowball effect has happened, and these Hawks haven't been able to get out of the way.
But, that wasn't the case tonight. Offensively it wasn't a pretty game with both teams grinding on offense. A few things jump out from the stat sheet. The Magic attempted seven more shots than the Hawks and six more free throws. Interesting that Atlanta outscored Orlando from the free throw line despite those six more attempts. The Hawks turned the ball over 13 times but those turnovers only led to only eight points for the Magic. Surprisingly Atlanta managed to out rebound Orlando which no doubt played a huge part in this victory.
Josh Smith led the way for Atlanta scoring 26 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists. Luckily for the Hawks the jumper was going in last night and Josh got himself going early by going to the basket which was key. I will give him a lot of credit for helping the Hawks move the basketball which they did rather effectively as 21 assists on 33 made field goals suggests. More than anything though, it seemed that Josh Smith was tuned into this game fully. There weren't periods of no effort. He flew around the court for the full 40 minutes he was out there and had a huge impact.
Joe Johnson and Al Horford were solid but not spectacular. Horford finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, and five assists which once again tied him for the team lead. Johnson finished with 18 points on 7-15 shooting. The Magic sent double teams at Johnson most of the night. When he did find single coverage, the Magic have no one anymore that can significantly guard Johnson. I thought at times he handled the double teams well and at other teams he held onto the ball. Improving in those situations will be key in the first round series when these two teams match up once again.
Before I get to Jason Collins I want to make a special mention to Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia's play. Those two combined for 15 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. Those 13 rebounds were key in Atlanta's out rebounding the Magic. Pachulia played a key stretch in the third quarter without Jason Collins on the floor and Marvin had a spectacular block I believe on Ryan Anderson during the same stretch. The final +/- stats of the night might not be kind to these two but I thought they did an excellent job of soaking up some minutes at a key point in the game. Offensively Williams picked up right where he left off in Cleveland going 4-6 from the field.
What can really be said about the play of Jason Collins? The stat sheet shows three points and five rebounds in just 18 minutes of action but he helped set the tone by drawing two early fouls on Dwight Howard which helped to frustrate the Magic center for much of the night. The improved defense that Kirk Hinrich provides on the perimeter at least for this night made Collins one on one defense of Howard that much better. For this Collins deserves major credit. This Orlando team is not very good without Dwight Howard and Atlanta effectively took Howard out of much of this game until an questionable coaching move late nearly enabled Howard to steal this game away from the Hawks.
Often I have complimented Larry Drew for thinking outside the box. I more than once questioned the strategy of starting Jason Collins early in the season against Howard, but to his credit he has made it work and the Hawks have been a better team for it against Orlando. That makes the decision to go with Horford on Howard in the fourth quarter so that Jamal Crawford can be on the floor all the more frustrating to me. Simply put there was no reason to finish this game any different than you started it and going forward this will be a prevailing theme in the playoffs. I will say this about Crawford that he is now trying to play like a point guard but that isn't necessarily the best thing for the Hawks. Atlanta really can't single cover Howard with any one single player but Collins. Pachulia can do it for a stretch but it will lead to a ton of fouls and that only seems to work after Howard is frustrated. There was no need to deviate from the game plan at that point. The Hawks had the lead and just needed to dig in on the defensive end but you can't do that with non defensive players on the court.
We won't know until the first round is here whether or not Atlanta's 3-1 regular season record against the Magic means anything. Minus Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and Marcin Gortat, Orlando is clearly not the match up nightmare for Atlanta that they were last season. Still in my opinion they have one of the best coaches in the game in Stan Van Gundy and they will adjust. There will be adjustments made rest assured and that in turn will force Atlanta to counter. How they are able to do that will be key in determining that first round series.
The Hawks have now won three games in a row and head into today's off day with an eye on the Celtics who come into Atlanta on Friday. I will stop short of saying that these last few games mean a terrible lot in the grand scheme of things. I do feel that they are important to a club that has shown little to no consistency, home or away, this season. To be successful in a seven game series against Orlando, Atlanta is going to have to bring it physically but perhaps more importantly mentally each and every game. They haven't proven this regular season that they can do that with regularity. That should be the challenge for this team to finish this season. They don't have to win them all but they need to be able to tune in and grind for a full 48 minutes. If and when they do that, then maybe we can be just a little more confident.