Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Enervating Run-In

The meaninglessness of these final four games is not entirely a result of the vagaries of the schedule and the stratification of the Eastern Conference. The first 78 games the Atlanta Hawks played, even the Summer and parts of Autumn that preceded the season, inform the emptiness even Pape Sy's NBA debut and the signing of Magnum Rolle can't fully fill.

For much of the season, it felt a fool's errand to try to explain or draw conclusions about this team. And that was when they were at full strength and/or trying to win games. Given the circumstances surrounding games 79 through 81, particularly the vague motives regarding injury and rest, it appears impossible to write empirically about the team.

Presumptions are possible in one distinct case: Josh Smith. I presume Josh Smith missed the games in Indiana and Washington because he was injured rather than because he was resting. Joe Johnson, who figures to use a plurality of Atlanta's post-season possessions, has played hurt essentially the entire season. Al Horford has (mostly) played through hand, ankle, and hamstring injuries for months. They both played when Smith did not. Thus, I presume Smith, due to his sprained knee, could not.

Nor did Smith's return exactly inspire, with 15 of his 17 points coming after the Hawks had fell behind by double-digits, fueled by Smith using six of his last eight shot on jumpers. There's no joy in watching Josh Smith play like Michael Beasley.

Given Larry Drew's inscrutable approach to playing time, no such presumptions can be made, with any confidence, about the health of Jason Collins. It's a fair question as to how long Collins, at full strength, can neutralize Dwight Howard in a seven-game series. Overlay the question of the state of his ankle to the subject and, well, good luck with your answer.

The combination of Drew's aforementioned inscrutable approach to playing time and the season-long problem of the odd, unbalanced roster at his disposal undermined the pleasure potential of the spirited fourth quarter comeback Atlanta's second unit offered up last night. The AP recap described Atlanta's fourth quarter unit as "a bunch of backups." Literally true, but far different than the motley collection of young and short-term Washington Wizards who devastated the unmotivated Hawks on Saturday night.

20 of Atlanta's 23 fourth quarter points were scored or assisted by Jamal Crawford, Zaza Pachulia, and Jeff Teague. Hardly LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh but clearly players six through eight in the Atlanta rotation and, competent a trio of Hawks as they are, their comeback may have drawn some aid from the 20-point hole the Atlanta starters dug partway through the third quarter.

The Heat could, quite reasonably, have expected the Hawks (now -56 on the season*) to give up as they'd done so many times before. To their credit, the Hawks didn't. Of course, the comeback didn't succeed for reasons fairly and equally credited to the Heat and blamed on Josh Powell. Powell, the patently terrible signing, provided one last, late reminder of all his flaws as a basketball player while sabotaging the good work of the four legitimate rotation players playing alongside him during the fourth quarter.

To wit:
  • Zero (0) defensive rebounds in 23:02
  • Two turnovers
  • Four personal fouls
  • The last two of which created a Crawford for James Jones with the game tied and a turnover with a minute left and the Hawks still down just six
Why did Josh Powell play 23 minutes? Because Jason Collins may or may not be capable of playing basketball at even his limited and particular current standard. Because Pape Sy and Magnum Rolle** were in street clothes making the other two options available to Drew:
  • Etan Thomas
  • Hilton Armstrong
Of the three, Powell might be the least bad option. But all three are bad, bad options for a professional*** basketball team. Which only underlines that all the limitations inhibiting this team (the rookie head coach, the expensive roster, the lack of depth, the lack of youth) are of their own making.

*Not entirely fair but, considering the Hawks were -4 on the season when they clinched the fifth seed, it's not entirely unfair either.

**Seriously, if Rolle had been signed in September and given Josh Powell's minutes all season, I'd have been interested and engaged. It's the timing of the signing that baffles me. And the age thing is an easy, irresistible gag at the organization's rather than the player's expense.

***I include most of Europe and the entirety of the D-League in this.

No comments: