This season the Hawks have taken their team basketball to another level. And that's not really saying enough---it more like another galaxy.
For those who have watched the Birds for longer than--oh---this season, we realize that going on the road, even in cities such as Chicago and Minnesota, and to play winning basketball as the Hawks have done this season, is a remarkable step forward.
(Sidenote: Ok, we realize they didn't actually win in Chicago, but they should have. If not for deciding that, with six minutes or so left to go in the game and a three possession lead that it was a good time to take the air out of the ball and then roll back the clock to a year ago and stand around and watch Joe Johnson go one on five down the stretch--no matter how hot he was---the Hawks could have closed the deal. Anyway, much like the Hawks over the weekend, we digress.)
Tuesday night in Minnesota, the Hawks got ahead early with a lot of energy and then seemed content to keep the Wolves at arms length for the rest of the game, sealing the deal with a 112-87 win over the Timberwolves. The Hawks forced a lot of turnovers, went strong to the basket, and shot the ball well---in fact if not for a lot of interesting foul calls on the Hawks big men, it might have been another soft fourth quarter for the starters.
As it was the foul trouble gave Josh Smith a short night (20 minutes) and fouled out Zaza Pachulia and Randolph Morris. That meant the weight of defending Kevin Love and Al Jefferson (who, um, can play a little bit) fell on the broad shoulders of Al Horford.
Horford played the most minutes of any Hawk by far (41--Joe was next with 34) and spent such extended play time being omnipresent, posting a 16/11/4 game with (2) steals and a block. Horford challenged shots inside, even when the officials made it hazardous for any Hawk to do so. He set an amazing amount of solid screens, freeing The Backcourt to light it up with (65) points between the three members. On one great play in the fourth quarter, Randolph Morris came down with a rebound and, with all the little men safely down on the other end of the court and nobody to bring the ball up, he flipped it to Al, who calmly dribbled down and started the offense. No problem.
The Hawks' only enemy right now is themselves--as they showed in Chicago by their odd decision making offensively and again at times against Minnesota. The Wolves showed they had little interest in actually defending Atlanta, allowing the Hawks to get wherever they wanted to on the floor. They sent soft double teams which the Hawks exploited with open shots, they let Johnson, Horford, et al dance into the lane, where the Hawks did score (42) points. But there were also many times where the Hawks bailed the defenseless Timberwolves team out by taking jump shots when the paint was wide open. Such decisions ultimately led to a large discrepancy in free throws, only somewhat blunted by the endgame garbage free throws. There was no reason tonight why the Hawks couldn't have exceeded their seasonal average in points in the paint (almost 50) and toed the line more than their ultimate total of (25).
Look, we understand that no team can exclusively rush the lane, but the Hawks tend to get away from it too easily, especially frustrating when such a strategy has led them to the advantage they now wish to exploit by going jump shot and allowing the other team to gather themselves defensively and get back into the game. With the way they are playing defensively (especially rebounding), this is the only thing that can hold them back from winning every game from lottery bound and lesser teams such as the Wolves and the Bulls.
Fortunately tonight the Hawks made a lot of those jump shots (9-20 on threes) and they did get into the paint and use Horford enough to make sure that the Wolves were never really in the game (their largest lead was zero, after all).
Stocking Stuffers---But You Can Keep the Kisses
Randolph Morris has had a fine year towards the end of the Hawks bench--but we saw why Woody is most comfortable using him when the game is not really in doubt. Morris inspired myriad gesticulations from his head coach on his way to a 3 point, 2 rebound, 6 foul night in (10) minutes.
Mo Evans may not have had much, and Jeff Teague may be playing a little loose lately---but we might have liked to have seen them in the game when the Hawks bigs got into trouble than the Jandolph Show we were treated to. Oh, and change that might to definitely. Sorry, Jandolph.
So he's stopped (for the most part) launching jays, so the next step in Josh Smith's Incredible Basketball Maturity is to stop the crying and campaigning after every foul called on him. Heck, even when he bowled over the Wolves in the fourth quarter on the way to the hoop and was obviously charging, he seemed to have to tell himself that, yes indeed, he did foul. THHB has seen a lot of basketball and we haven't seen an instance yet where berating, scowling, swearing, or anything other negative message has won an official over. Maybe Smith believes he can pioneer the effort, but we think that in doing so he'll accumulate a Rasheed Wallace amount of technicals while testing the theory. Pretty selfish behavior there for a guy who has taken things seriously enough in the other areas to make himself potentially visible in the actual All-Star game.
BTW, if you haven't voted yet, we've installed an easy to use widget on the sidebar that will assist you in stuffing the virtual ballot box, China style, for the home team. THHB showed no shame across the board in saluting Johnson, Crawford, Horford, and Smith. Sorry, Mike Bibby--couldn't vote for the entire Backcourt.
Speaking of Bibby, he managed to log in an (18) and (6) game throughout his (27) minutes. Bibby has amazingly taken his True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage up some notches this season. He might, and history shows that he likely will, slow down from this current rate, but he's also being used less than ever, so maybe less quantity is leading to more quality this season.
One last note---we love Corey Brewer, but there is a reason many Gator fans called him "The Drunken Dribbler" while in Gainesville. It was a nice trip back to those championship seasons Tuesday night watching Horford dunking, Hollins flailing, and Brewer dribbling---it was like nothing changed.
THHB would like to offer the Hawks a sincere Christmas gift of thanks for such a fine first (27) games of basketball. It's been a blast thus far. Napkins and Party Favors can be setup in the Comments Area.