Hawks Ready for Playoffs
The team’s mindset before two statement games, and how it translates into a larger picture.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Shootaround Before Wednesday’s Game vs. Lakers
The Lakers take each team’s best shot every night. And the Hawks were prepared to give them exactly that.
“It’s always pandemonium in here [when Lakers are in town],” says guard Joe Johnson. Johnson recognizes the challenges on both ends of the floor of trying to contain Kobe Bryant while trying to get his offense going against Ron Artest. “He just got great hands man,” says Johnson on Artest, “he just has a knack for getting his hands on the ball.”
Asked what it will take to contain Bryant, Johnson says, “Just try to keep a body on him, keep a hand in his face and make all the shots as tough as possible.”
Hawks guard Jamal Crawford says he would be lying if he says playing the Lakers is like any other game.
“You know it’s a different game. These are the world champs and they’re the world champs until somebody knocks them off, so we’ll be measured against the best,” says Crawford.
And besides the significance of who they’re playing, the Hawks all understand what they’re playing for. “We’re not satisfied [with clinching a playoff spot], we got a lot more work to do. We’re trying to improve our seed…every game is important ’til the end,” says Johnson.
Coach Mike Woodson talks about the importance of individual matchups and rebounding because of the Lakers’ size advantage. “It’s gonna take all 48 minutes, a solid 48 minutes from everybody to come out of here with a win,” he says.
“One of the Best Total Team Efforts”
For an entire 48 minutes, the Hawks were the better team. In front of a packed house, the offense flowed seamlessly as the Hawks had 21 assists to 5 turnovers. Led by Zaza Pachulia’s first double-double of the season off the bench, the team out-hustled the Lakers, getting to loose balls and grabbing offensive boards, leading to a 17-7 advantage on second chance points.
Crawford calls the game “one of the best total team efforts all year.” Mo Evans, who scored 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting, says, “Everybody contributed, minutes were spread out really even, and guys really stepped up and shared the ball tonight.”
“This is definitely a big game for us,” Evans continues, “all the games are big down the stretch because we’re still trying to get the third seed.”
Pachulia says the Hawks need this type of effort every game. “It’s important to be consistent and to play the same way with same energy,” he says. He mentions athleticism as the Hawks’ advantage over other teams, echoing what Kobe Bryant said after the Lakers shootaround. Bryant called Atlanta “probably the most athletic team that we face all year. Just all positions, they can all run…like a track team.”
Johnson recognizes the importance of team depth when he says, “guys like Mo [Evans], Jamal [Crawford], Jeff [Teague] and Zaza [Pachulia]…they all came in and contributed big minutes and pretty much built that lead up…that’s what we’re gonna need in order for us to win a title–we talking about winning a title here–it’s gonna take all what 12, 13 guys.”
“Talking About Winning a Title”
As Joe Johnson says, the Hawks are playing for the championship. However, they will have to go through Cleveland in order to get one. After playing the best team in the Western Conference, the Hawks would head to Cleveland to play LeBron James and the Eastern Conference-best Cavaliers.
“[The win against the Lakers] definitely gives us confidence going into Cleveland,” says Johnson, “something that I think that we really need at this point knowing that Cleveland is a team that in order for us to reach our ultimate goal, that’s a team that we have to go through and that’s a place that we have to go and win.”
Crawford says, “We matched up well with [Cleveland] the first two times…I think we’re right there with them, you know we’ll see where we’re at Friday and go from there.”
Despite their statement win vs. the Lakers, the Hawks were unable to notch a victory against the Cavaliers that Friday. The 5-point loss was their ninth straight to the Cavaliers and the third this season. It may be fitting that the Hawks will end the regular season with Cleveland coming to town. However, a few weeks ago Al Horford mentioned the 7-game Hawks/Celtics series in 2008 to make the point that a regular season sweep doesn’t necessarily translate into the postseason outcome.
No Longer a Spectator
Last year, Jamal Crawford was a spectator at the NBA playoffs, watching close friend Brandon Roy make his first postseason appearance with the Trail Blazers. “I just felt the energy in the building, I wasn’t even playing. So to have the opportunity to do it myself, I’m ecstatic,” says Crawford who will reach the playoffs for the first time in ten seasons.
“You know [Crawford] really hasn’t said much about [reaching the postseason] and I have not said anything to him about it because I just figured coming into this season, there was no excuse why we shouldn’t make the playoffs based on what we’ve done the last two years. For him, I’m sure he’s very gratified and satisfied,” says Woodson.
Asked if he’s nervous or just ready to finally get there, Crawford responds, “I’m nervous before every game honestly. I have butterflies until I get up and down the court, throw a pass or make a shot, so I’m sure I won’t be able to sleep the night before.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Teague will reach the playoffs for the first time in his rookie season. “I know a lot of other rookies are not preparing for the playoffs, they’re just playing the end of season…so to have an opportunity to play in the playoffs my first year is gonna be big,” he says.
While Crawford can’t offer the rookie advice on what to expect in the playoffs, he can offer the experience of ten NBA seasons. Crawford says he tells Teague to “just to keep his confidence up. You know he’s such a talent, I think that once he gets more game experience, he’ll feel more comfortable out there, but he’s going to be a really, really, really good player in this league.”
On the Rise
Forward Josh Smith was drafted before the 2004-05 season when the Hawks would go on to win 13 games. The team acquired Joe Johnson the following season and went on to win 26 games. What is it like to be part of a turnaround of that magnitude?
“Whenever you can start off how we did with thirteen wins and being able to be one of the best teams in the NBA is definitely mind boggling, surreal, and you definitely cherish moments like this,” says Smith.
“It’s a blessing, man it’s a blessing,” says Johnson. “The guys who’ve been here my first few years here when we weren’t making the playoffs, when we were just gearing up getting ready to go home this time of year, I think it’s something special. Those were the tough days and you can look back on those days and smile now, because we’ve worked our butts off not only during the season but during the offseason to improve as a team and we’ve done that.”
Point Guard Mike Bibby, who reached the conference finals with the Sacramento Kings, sees similarities between the rise of both teams. Bibby says, “In Sacramento the guys were older than what we have here. You know they had Vlade Divac, [Chris] Webber, [Doug] Christie…we were still kind of young, but we were not as young as [the Hawks].
He mentions Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams all being in their young twenties, forcing one to consider the potential of the team if the young core stays together.