Apologies to anyone who tried to read this recap or comment on a post during Blogger's 20+ hour downtime.
Hawks fans can’t have anything nice.
The team’s streak of not winning more than one playoff series in a season since moving to Atlanta remains intact as does the desultory nature of their elimination from the playoffs. One has to go back to 1998* for an example of the Hawks losing their final playoff game by fewer than ten points. One has to go back to 1988 for an example of the Hawks scoring more than 92 points in their final playoff game. In each of the last three** seasons, the Hawks have been eliminated from the playoffs at home, scoring an average of 77 points and losing by an average of 14 and two-thirds points.
*Even then, the Hawks blew a six-point halftime lead as the Hornets hammered them to the tune of 56-41 in the second half.
**Go back four seasons, and you can include the 99-65 Game 7 loss in Boston. In the last Atlanta playoff appearance of the 1990s, the Hawks scored 66 points in New York. It’s basically pick-your-unappealing-end-point when it comes to Atlanta playoff exits.
It says something of the quality of the team’s regular season that watching the Hawks win 6 of their first 11 playoff games (while being outscored by 33 points) provided both pleasure and reasons for optimism. It says something of the experience of being a Hawks fan that a 20-point loss in the 12th playoff game could render both obsolete.
Jeff Teague, with his head coach finally given no choice but to play him, blossomed in this series, putting a performance that speaks volumes of his talent and provides an unexpected hope for the team’s improvement in 2011-12 (if applicable). Teague’s absence, first through coaching decision then through injury, for three-and-a-half quarters (Yes, Teague returned but he was not himself.) brought familiar flaws (roster construction, indifference to perimeter defense on the court and on the sideline) back to the surface.
Al Horford, on the day he earned well-deserved acclaim in the All-NBA voting, completed a dispiriting series wherein his friend and former teammate Joakim Noah’s defense clearly got the better of him. It’s no coincidence* that Horford’s two best games in the series came when the Hawks moved the ball and moved without the ball and he suffered when placed in isolation against one of the game’s premier defenders. The experience of watching Horford play out, in microcosm, Joe Johnson’s playoff career with the Hawks provides equal evidence of Horford’s status of the team’s best player* and the team’s dysfunction. Given the typical number of touches Horford receives in the post, one wonders if Larry Drew’s pre-game declaration, "A guy of his size and his ability, one area of improvement he really needs to make is his footwork," though true, is simply the Al Horford equivalent of needing to see more consistency from Jeff Teague.
*The Bulls used Noah (and Asik) against Horford throughout the series. For much of the second quarter of Game 6, Tom Thibodeau, defense obsessive, was perfectly fine with Kyle Korver guarding Joe Johnson. Horford may be the team’s best player by process of elimination (with Johnson’s defense and rebounding and Josh Smith’s shot selection being the respective eliminating factors) but he is the team’s best player.
Nor is it a coincidence that Carlos Boozer became an offensive force in this series once Jason Collins entered the starting lineup. The Hawks might not have made the second round without Collins but his one specific skill cannot be utilized in a variety of circumstances. Collins made the hobbled Boozer look athletic by comparison and could not have fairly been expected to close out on Boozer to 18 feet. Nor should Collins ever have been put in the position of being one of the baseline wing defenders in a 2-3 zone. If you have to close out on a shooter in the right corner with a defender from the left side of the floor (see Keith Bogans, 5:56 of the third quarter), you’ve got your tactics wrong.
Larry Drew never seemed to understand that Jamal Crawford was nearly as one-dimensional as Collins nor that Crawford’s great skill and his greatest liability overlapped so neatly with those of Joe Johnson. In Game 6, Drew’s hand was eventually forced by the injuries to Teague and Kirk Hinrich but his early, tactical decision to replace Teague with Crawford had the same result as it did in Game 5: Chicago extending their lead to double-digits in the first quarter.
Drew deserves credit both for the defensive gameplan against Orlando and his team’s offensive performances in Games 1 and 4 of the Chicago series. There is a very real chance that he learned on the job during his rookie season. On the other hand, in Game 6, his indiscriminate deployment of Collins and Crawford, his willingness not to play Jeff Teague, his decision to pull Al Horford from the game for the final 72 seconds of the first half* because he had committed two personal fouls, and the eight jump shots that Josh Smith attempted outside of 16 feet (5-37 in the series from that range) brought the criticisms Drew fairly received all season back to the fore.
*This didn’t change the outcome of the game but it was completely unnecessary as it was an elimination game, Horford finished the game with two fouls, and those all-important fourth quarter minutes Drew was presumably saving Horford for ended being played by Josh Powell and Hilton Armstrong anyway.
John Hollinger is optimistic about the Hawks’ future (though part of that comes from him being less convinced of Jeff Teague’s competence during the regular season than I) and, perhaps as the disappointment of another comprehensive defeat in the team’s last stand fades, I, too, will be able to focus on the possibility that a Teague/Hinrich backcourt can make a significant defensive difference, the possibility that Josh Smith overwhelmingly takes shots he’s likely to make, the possibility that Al Horford develops a post game good enough to draw a double-team and take full advantage of his passing skills, the possibility that Jamal Crawford is allowed to leave and all the possessions he uses go to more multi-faceted offensive players, the possibility that the Hawks receive anything of value in exchange for Marvin Williams (-33 in 108 minutes in the Chicago series), and the possibility that the Hawks find cheap, quality talent to fill out the bench. Some of those possibilities may come to pass when next we see professional basketball in Atlanta. Right now, they all feel very far away.