By Buddy Grizzard
In Wednesday's home win over Portland, Jamal Crawford tried to put on a show and steal one from his former team. The Hawks built several leads down the stretch but Crawford kept shooting the Blazers back into it. I was at Phillips and I kept expecting the Hawks to fold in the face of challenge after challenge.
It didn't happen.
Josh Smith and Joe Johnson played with a tremendous amount of heart. Smith was involved in a brutal trench war with LaMarcus Aldridge the whole game, prompting the Western Conference All-Star candidate to say, "I definitely didn't play big down the stretch." Johnson picked Wesley Matthews' pocket and set up Jeff Teague for an alley-oop that put the Hawks ahead 86-80 with 1:25 to play in one of the biggest plays of the game. They seemed to be saying to Crawford, "This isn't your house anymore. This is our house."
I honestly was expecting a letdown against the first quality opponent the team had faced since Al Horford's injury. Instead I watched the Hawks move to 7-1 at home and momentarily take over first place in the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference behind the Bulls. That set up a meeting of division leaders Friday night as the Hawks traveled to face the 76ers, a team that has absolutely had their number in recent history.
I suspect that the 76ers play so hard against the Hawks, not only because many of them have Atlanta ties (Jodie Meeks and Lou Williams won high school championships in Georgia; Thaddeus Young played at Georgia Tech), but also because the Hawks passed over opportunities to draft some of them. In 2005, the Hawks owned the first pick of the second round and spent it on Salim Stoudamire, leaving Williams and Monta Ellis on the board. In 2007, after selecting Horford with the third pick, the Hawks took Acie Law with the 11th pick. Young went 12th to the 76ers. Can you imagine if the Hawks had selected Horford and Young in the same draft?
So Friday in Philly the Hawks faced a motivated, fast, athletic and statistically brilliant team on the road, where Atlanta has accumulated the bulk of its losses. They also faced Doug Collins, who enters the conversation with a guy like Tom Thibodeau when discussing the best coaches in the NBA. Let's just say Larry Drew doesn't enter that conversation. Let's just say Larry Drew is in the conversation about coaches who may not have their contract extended past this season, especially after what he said following the loss.
After a solid first half for the Hawks, the 76ers came out of halftime, where coaches have their best opportunity to make adjustments, and ran the Hawks off the floor. Did Drew do anything to counter Collins' strategy of packing the paint and daring Smith to shoot jumpers? Did he send Ivan Johnson in to counter quickness with quickness on a night when Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia were ineffective? No. He watched the 76ers put on a brilliant display of shot making as the Hawks went ice cold, then threw his players under the bus, telling media after the game that they quit in the 3rd quarter.
Let's get something straight. There is absolutely no shame in losing on the road to one of the best teams in the league, a team that has shown the ability to run the Hawks off the floor prior to this season, especially when you are missing your third-team All-NBA center. There is absolutly no shame in Joe Johnson, after a string of strong performances, having an off night against possibly the greatest wing defender alive, Andre Iguodala. The Hawks at 11-5 are sitting a half game back of division leader Orlando and have far exceeded expectations.
The Atlanta Hawks did not quit. But Larry Drew needs to stop and re-evaluate where he's at in his career. Coaches who are truly successful in this league, such as Phil Jackson (and I daresay Thibodeau and Collins), are coaches who both respect and earn the respect of their players.
Somebody tell Jeff Schultz the bandwagon needs a tow to the shop.