By Buddy Grizzard
After Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz, caught up in the euphoria of the Hawks current win streak, decided to launch an early Coach of the Year campaign on behalf of Larry Drew and I suspect the euphoria would be greater if Drew hadn't charitably donated a game to the Heat earlier this season, I thought I'd better chime in about the importance of today's match-up with the visiting Portland Trail Blazers.
The Hawks, despite having played the Bulls and Heat twice each, currently rank 24th out of 30 NBA teams in opponents' strength of schedule. The Blazers, meanwhile, are 8-5 against the second-toughest schedule in the league. I suggest that, before we get too excited about Josh Smith's recent hot shooting against pitiful opposition, and before we mail off those Coach of the Year ballots, we see how the Hawks perform against the toughest opponent they have faced since losing Al Horford to injury. If the Hawks beat the Blazers tonight, then beat the 76ers on Friday, keep a seat warm for me on that Larry Drew bandwagon.
Despite Portland's well chronicled struggles in the back-court, you have to figure Jamal Crawford will be ready to play in his first game back at Phillips Arena since the Hawks declined to offer him a contract extension. What most concerns me, however, is Drew's recent flirtation with Jason Collins in the starting lineup. I intend no disrespect to Collins...I don't think the Hawks make it out of the first round last year without his defense on Dwight Howard. But I thought the East semifinals against Chicago proved beyond a doubt that Collins doesn't have a role when the Hawks face an athletic front line that plays facing the basket. Here are some notes on the production of Atlanta's bench big men in that series:
In Games 1-3, neither Collins nor Zaza Pachulia played more than 10 minutes or made a major contribution as the Bulls took a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 saw the return of Collins as a starter in place of Marvin Williams as Drew deployed his "big" lineup. Collins finished with 4 points and no rebounds in 12 minutes on a night when the Hawks won 100-88 behind Josh Smith's monster 23 point, 16 rebound and 8 assist night. Possibly more significant was that Zaza played 26 minutes, scored 5 points and collected 9 rebounds.
For Game 5, Collins again got the starting nod, played 15 minutes, went scoreless and collected two rebounds. In 23 minutes, Zaza went 5-for-6, scored 13 points, collected 4 rebounds and was the only Hawk with a positive +/- as the Bulls won 95-83.
In Games 4 and 5, Collins' brief appearances to start the 1st and 3rd quarters neither significantly hurt nor helped the Hawks. But in Game 6, as Drew employed a similar substitution pattern for the third consecutive game, it appears Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau figured out how to exploit it. Collins opened the game guarding Carlos Boozer, who floated out to mid range and scored 7 early points as the Bulls built an 11-4 lead. Seeing that Collins had no chance to guard Boozer on the perimeter, Horford switched onto Boozer and Collins began checking Joakim Noah.
Now, I don't know how much you've watched Noah play, but he is not usually called on to initiate the offense from outside the three point line. On this occasion, Noah isolated just left of the top of the circle and drove right around Collins for a layup and a 19-11 Bulls lead. A very obvious and predictable strategy of pulling Collins away from the basket and exploiting his lack of foot speed accounted for 9 of the Bulls first 19 points.
In every game of the series, the team that lead after one quarter went on to win the game. The Bulls lead 27-17 after the first quarter of Game 6, won the game 93-73 and headed to the Eastern Conference Finals. Zaza played 23 minutes, scored only 1 point but collected 13 rebounds. He again had the best +/- of any Hawk to play at least 10 minutes (he lead the team in +/- for the series). According to John Hollinger's Playoff Stats, Zaza finished the 2011 postseason ranked 9th in rebounding rate, trailing only Noah (4th) and Boozer (6th) among those who played in the Bulls-Hawks series.
I've recently analyzed Zaza's potential to produce in an increased role this season in the wake of Horford's injury. But now Drew says he prefers to bring Zaza off the bench because he likes his rapport with Vladimir Radmanovic. If Collins starts (or plays) against the Blazers, watch to see if they try to draw him away from the basket. Watch to see if the man guarding him cheats with help defense. I respect the fact that Collins chose to re-sign with the Hawks when other offers were available, and that he increased his strength and conditioning during the lockout. But the Blazers are not a team he has a role against.
Buddy Grizzard formerly toiled as the sports editor for several small, local newspapers, has been a producer for CBS and Clear Channel radio and worked as a videographer for CBS Sports website MaxPreps.com.