Friday, January 06, 2012

Hawks Find Themselves in the Moment, and Don't Like What They Find

Ed. note -- I'm glad to publish another piece by Buddy Grizzard, who previously wrote the initial feedback to Wednesday's game against the Bulls.

You know that Eminem song "Lose Yourself" from the 8 Mile soundtrack? The chorus:
"You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow (as in blow up, become huge)

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime."
There are moments like this in NBA basketball that come to define entire careers for players and coaches. A good example of this is Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals. The Lakers lead the series 2-1 over the Magic, but Orlando carried a 3 point lead into the game's final 10 seconds. Stan Van Gundy instructed his team not to foul, Jameer Nelson played off Derek Fisher like he was anticipating a drive, Fisher nailed a three and the Lakers won in overtime to take a commanding 3-1 series lead en route to the NBA title.

A foul prior to Fisher's shot would have put the Lakers at the line for two free throws, giving Orlando the ball back with at least a one-point lead and precious seconds run off the clock. It would have meant almost certain victory and brought Orlando within two victories of an elusive championship. Instead, with Dwight Howard's career seemingly winding down in Orlando, those 10 seconds likely cemented Van Gundy's legacy as the coach who failed to win a championship with either of the two best centers of consecutive generations (you will recall that Pat Riley replaced Van Gundy on the Heat bench and coached Shaq and D-Wade to the 2006 NBA championship). Those 10 seconds come once in a lifetime.

As an interested observer of the Atlanta Hawks since Randy Whittman poster night at the Omni with my Cub Scout pack, I find myself wondering, as I have since Dominique Wilkens came up short in his second-round duel with an aging Larry Bird, if this current Hawks iteration has reached its high-water mark. Did it happen during the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, when the Hawks fell in Game 2, missing a chance to go up 2-0 as third-team All-NBA center Al Horford sat almost an entire half in phantom foul trouble? Did it happen Tuesday night, again in Chicago, when the Hawks were on the verge of following up a resounding win at Miami with a rout of last season's Eastern Conference runner-up?

During the TNT pre-game show for last night's Hawks-Heat rematch at Phillips Arena, studio analyst Chris Webber had an interesting take. He mystified Ernie Johnson by predicting a Miami victory, despite the absence of LeBron and D-Wade from the lineup due to injuries. He stated that the Heat have title aspirations, and if Chris Bosh wants to be considered one of the Big 3, and not just a complimentary player to the Heat's pair of top-5 NBA talents, then he should step forward in this situation and lead his team. How smart does C-Webb look right now?

It got me wondering, do the Hawks have title aspirations? Let's ask that question of some of the key actors in this unfolding drama.

1. Josh Smith

Can Joshua Smith be fairly said to have title aspirations when he eschews the inside game that many doubt but that he flashes whenever so motivated in favor of low-percentage jumpers? I was convinced at the start of this season that Josh would finally make an All-Star team. He returned from the lockout in prime condition, having shed weight that hurt his quickness last season, and appeared ready to break through to the next level. But he will never win enough fan votes to be an All-Star starter as long as his errant J's are filling Phillips with groans instead of cheers. And he will never be selected as a reserve by any Eastern Conference coach who watches him try to be something he's not and let his elite talents go to waste.

2. Jeff Teague

No Hawk has wilted in the spotlight this season more than Teague. After taking it to Deron Williams and taking it into Chris Bosh's chest as the Hawks capped a 4-1 start to the season with a dramatic win at Miami, Teague failed to show up the next night at Chicago. I've speculated that his poor body language and failure to fight through picks (now two games in a row) resulted from Larry Drew's refusal to endorse his strong early start by proclaiming that Teague will continue to start at point guard even after Kirk Hinrich returns to the lineup (Hinrich is recovering from off-season surgery). Teague seems like he's waiting to be given credit. But Michael Jordan was never given anything. You have to take it. If Teague has title aspirations, the stage is his. A rematch with Chicago looms on Saturday, and he can decide to resume giving the same type of effort he gave in the playoffs last year any time he so chooses.

3. Larry Drew

Can any NBA coach be said to have title aspirations if that coach sits his most efficient player for half of a critical playoff game? Can any NBA head coach be said to have title aspirations if that coach allows the league MVP to isolate and go one-one-one against his point guard and basically says, "we only win if Teague can stop Derek Rose one-on-one, something nobody on the planet can do?"

When I first saw the Hawks' schedule and noted this brutal week with two games each against Chicago and Miami, I immediately though a split of those four games would be very respectable. It would represent an excellent start to the season, provided the team took care of business against lesser opponents. Last night, despite the collapse against Chicago and despite all the team's struggles against a depleted Miami squad, the Hawks found themselves up by 3 with 5 seconds to go. The opportunity to earn that split of the four games was there for the taking. With a foul to give, the Hawks could have burned a few seconds then made the Heat take the ball out of bounds again. Then they could have fouled prior to the shot and sent the Heat to the line for two free throws.

Instead, Drew pulled a Van Gundy. He instructed his team not to foul. He said he trusted his defense, the same defense that gave up two layups in the final minute of regulation. His trust was rewarded by Marvin Williams' soft defense on Bosh who nailed a three, sent the game into overtime, and sent the Hawks on their way to yet another disaster. Those 5 seconds come once in a lifetime. How many more chances will the Hawks have to seize the moment?

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


Charles said...

Fantastic post. More from Buddy, please.

Unknown said...

love the concept from buddy - not sure I'm all in on the execution if Jeff Teague's like 14th start means he is 'wilting'. I agree that he has been bad in about 2-3 games, but that would also be true for the entire team (not named Marvin Williams), so I'm still at a loss for why Al Horford is not on this list.

I know we love efficiency, but if he's your best player then he's not showing up in crunch time as that. he's not demanding the ball - he's not doing any of the things that people seem to think his talent suggests he can. He may be good, but he certainly has not looked All Star-esque so far, so if Teague gotta take that weight this early in his starting role - why isn't Horford or Johnson on this list.

Buddy Grizzard said...

Larry and Charles, thank you very much for reading. I picked on a few specific guys because I had specific axes to grind. I don't mean to say Teague is wilting in the face of whatever our expectation level should be for him at this specific point in his career. What I meant to say is that he wilted in the spotlight that he helped create with his strong early start, culminating in the road win at Miami.

Alot of eyes were focused on the Hawks after that win. Would they firmly establish themselves as contenders in the East? Or would they revert to schizophrenic form, following beautiful wins with ugly, inexplicable losses? And sure enough, the Hawks promptly blew a 19-point lead in a game in which Teague looked disinterested. His defensive effort was so poor that Drew had to put Joe on Rose for part of the first half.

I blame Teague and Drew both for the situation. I blame Drew because he could have defered questions about who would start when Hinrich returns and simply said, "we won't know what Hinrich's status is until he's cleared to resume playing." But I blame Teague just as much because, get over it. Regardless of whether your coach is building up your confidence or not, you come out and play to the best of your capabilities every night. Teague didn't do this. We've all seen him give better effort than what he gave in the Chicago game.

Frankie said...

Awesome article Buddy. I would like to read more posts like this from Buddy.

Rufus1 said...

Fair and balanced assessment...Good Job.

I think this is a transition for everyone on this team.

Teague, has to grow-up as a PG.
LD, has to understand Teague is YOUR future and not Kirk.
Joe, has lost some of his luster ans has to adjust.
Josh and AL have solidify their position on the rebounding end.
Marvin, must stay aggressive.

I think this is the Hawks year for ONE REASON, the BENCH.