The Hawks were able to handle the visiting Clippers with relative ease Saturday night in the most impressive performance of the season, and also their fifth victory in a row. The 104-93 final score is not totally indicative of the Hawks domination. Los Angeles jumped out to a 24-21 lead after the first behind 11 points, four rebounds, and four assists from Blake Griffin in the quarter. Griffin finished with 22 points 11 boards, and seven assists, but had only three points, three boards, and two dimes in the second half.
After allowing a number of early dunks and lay-ups, the Hawks bounced back and did a very good job protecting the rim for the final three quarters. The Clippers had 14 points in the paint in the first quarter and had just 16 the rest of the game (Total of 30; Hawks finished with 46). The Hawks made a concerted effort to force the Clippers to be a jump-shooting team, keep them out of transition, and make them attempt contested shots (something the Hawks have struggled to do of late).
"We wanted to really make it a priority to defend the paint," said Larry Drew. "Early, they got three or four dunks on lobs, which is something that we talked about that we had to eliminate or minimize as much as we could. When Josh got the two fouls, I thought Zaza and Ivan came in and really gave us just a big lift inside. I thought we did a really good job protecting our paint tonight."
"[The focus] was just to make them make shots over people," said Lou Williams. "Just to contest as much as we possibly could and I think we did a really good job of that. [We were] just trying to make guys shoot over a lot of hands and it worked out for us."
"[The key] was going back at them. You gotta make those guys guard too," said Jeff Teague. "If you let them play offense the whole game their going to eat you alive, but if you go at them and make them guard too, they can get tired on the defensive end just as well and that's what they did."
Chris Paul had a modest stat-line for his standards with 19 points and seven assists (he did have seven steals though), and the Hawks were, for the most-part, able to keep him out of the paint.
"Ha, I don't know how we did it," said Teague. "He's a great player, but we just made plays, played defense, good team defense you know and you try to live with those guys making jump shots."
The second quarter was a much better quarter for the Hawks as they outscored the Clippers 30-17 and really ratcheted up the energy on both ends of the floor. Lou Williams brought a lot of energy off the bench and gave the Hawks nine points and three assists, while Jeff Teague picked his level of play up along with his backcourt partner, scoring nine points and dishing out three dimes of his own in the quarter. Lou finished the game with 18 points and five assists off the bench. Teague finished tied for the team lead with 19 points (with Zaza) and also dropped 11 dimes in one of his best overall performances on the season.
"We were timid in the first quarter, as you can tell, but Lou came in and made plays and I think we all fed off him when he made those plays to the rim," said Teague.
Larry Drew heaped praise on the performance of his bench unit, and credited them with providing the energy the team needed in that second quarter.
"I thought my bench did a phenomenal job, not a good job, a phenomenal job coming into the game and getting us going. As I told them, there's just going to be nights where you're not going to have it. I thought our guys, particularly our starters, early struggled a bit, but our bench guys did a phenomenal job. I thought Lou came in and gave us some great minutes, Anthony Morrow gave us good minutes, and Zaza was huge tonight and played a phenomenal game. Ivan did a terrific job as well."
The most glaring omission from the stat sheet in the first half is that of Josh Smith. His presence was brief as he picked up a pair of fouls in the first five minutes, and he sat the rest of the half after recording 0 points and just one board. Smoove and Drew were seen having a heated exchange on the bench, but they shrugged it off as nothing after the game, with Drew saying he just explained to Josh that he would run with the hot group on the floor as long as he could.
Josh came out and responded positively to his benching in the first half and had 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting (2-of-3 from the FT line) and he didn't take a shot outside of eight feet. His aggressiveness spread throughout the team, who dominated the Clippers in the third, 34-19, and took an 85-60 lead into the fourth.
"Yeah, [we just focused on] being aggressive. We didn't want to have any letdowns in the third, and we knew they were gonna be aggressive and pressing a little bit so we wanted to extend the lead and that's what we did."
The Clippers made a run to start the fourth and cut the lead down to 10 (with help from a patented Jamal Crawford four-point play), but the Hawks answered back, thanks to help from Smoove and Zaza Pachulia. Smoove had seven points in the fourth, including a three that gave the Hawks a 14-point cushion (don't worry, it was with 3 seconds on the shot-clock) and a late dunk to ice the game. Josh finished with 17 points, all coming in the second half.
Pachulia, who had his best game of the year with 19 points and 12 boards, came in towards the end of the Clippers run, and helped to squash any hopes of a Los Angeles comeback with tough interior defense and some slick offense too. Larry Drew talked about Zaza's importance in this win and to the team in general (he also had the funniest line of the night).
"He was a warrior. I mean he was very physical tonight. You know, Zaza doesn't have much lift around the basket, but he just throws that body all over the place and gets the shot off. He was really good for us, he really played big tonight, and really brought a physicality to the game. When we match up with teams with bigger centers like that, that's how I'm expecting Zaza to play and he really answered the bell tonight."
The Hawks improve to 8-4 (4-2 home) with the victory and now sit near the top of the Eastern Conference. The Clippers finish a rough road-trip, but they still represent one of the top teams in the West, and this got the Hawks a season-split after an ugly 11-point loss in L.A. earlier in the season.
When asked about where he thought the team would be after 12 games, Josh paused and thought real hard (somewhat mocking the question but, whatever) and said,
""Let's see, hmm, I would've said we'd be 10-2. I'm super biased because I am a Hawk and I do love the team, I like what we've got going, I love the chemistry and you know it took us this long to find our niche and we're doing a good job of it."
For Lou Williams, the win over the Clippers is just another win and another step in the right direction.
"Every win is a big win for us, we're not going to throw anything extra on to it because of the caliber of the other team. We feel like we should be in that hunt with those teams, and in order for us to get there we have to beat those types of teams. So, it's just another good win for us, it's our fifth one in a row, and we're just going to enjoy it like that."
Some are surprised to see Atlanta at 8-4, and beating the Clippers is a big step, but the Hawks aren't satisfied with just a hot start and beating quality teams. They truly believe they are real contenders, and if they play like they did last night, they just might be right.