United We Stand
A team attitude and a focus on one goal has kept the Hawks among the best in the East.
By Jon Cooper
There are plenty of reasons why the Atlanta Hawks could be out of the playoff race or certainly lower than the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, where they find themselves as they wake up — deservedly as late as they wish — on Monday morning.
- Injuries have forced them to employ 10 different starting lineups this season — that's one every five games.
- Of the 15 players on the roster, nine of them — Jason Collins, Willie Green, Kirk Hinrich, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Jannero Pargo, Vladimir Radmanovic and Marvin Williams — have missed games. Of those nine, all but McGrady have missed at least five games, with four of them, Green (10), Hinrich (18), Collins (21), and Horford (38 and counting) missing at least 10 games.
Yet, the Hawks find themselves at 30-20, having won six out of seven, and four in a row, including a sweep of the past weekend, which saw them play three games in three nights in three different venues (Friday night at Philips, Saturday night in Washington and Sunday evening back at Philips, in a four-overtime marathon against Utah).
Yeah, there are plenty of reasons the Hawks could be out of the Playoff race, never mind the race for home court advantage in the first round.
There's one reason that they're not: the players' unity.
"I'm always talking about staying competitive. Given what our injury situation has been, we've been able to sustain even with all the injuries that we've had," said Hawks Head Coach Larry Drew. "I give the players all the credit for that.
"It's not easy to lose an All-Star like Al Horford," Drew continued. "It's not easy losing Joe and given all the other injuries that we've had. But all the shuffling around and all the different lineup changes have seemed to help. Chances are, we're going to have to do more of that."
Sunday night's game was a perfect example. The Hawks played only nine players, but got double-figure scoring out of seven of them and another, Ivan Johnson, had nine. Eight different players logged at least 25 minutes. Despite the shortened bench the Hawks faced down four buzzer-beating opportunities, then took the game in the fourth extra session — Atlanta's first since beating Seattle back in 1982.
Resilience is a crucial element for every team, especially in this 66-game sprint. The Hawks have shown that, especially without their superstars. They are 23-16 since losing Horford and were 4-2 in stints without Johnson — one of those losses being a three-point defeat at Miami, which played LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh. For these Hawks, it's become less of a matter of who's not there as to who is.
"Everybody is playing good in other people's absence and are just making our team a deeper ball club," said Josh Smith, one of two Hawks to have played in every game. "It's veteran leadership. Our bench is deeper than ever and guys are always stepping up and playing well in other people's absence."
"We've got tough guys," said Jeff Teague, who is the other. "That's our foundation, being together and being a family. Whoever's on the floor play hard and play together. We have to work with what we have. We're doing a pretty good job of it."
Bringing a group together that could work together was paramount in the construction of this roster prior to the preseason.
"That was important," said Drew. "After the lockout we were talking about the type of pieces to bring in here, we were talking about strengthening our bench. You always have to look at in the event of injury. With the players that we've brought in, there seems to be a cohesiveness amongst them. You can certainly see the camaraderie, especially when one guy goes down somebody else slides in. We've been able to manage."
Those key off-season additions included veteran acquisitions, Willie Green, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jannero Pargo, Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse. They also added 27-year-old rookie Ivan Johnson and veteran big Erick Dampier. The moves have paid off and the chemistry has been right.
"It's a credit to everybody involved with this organization because it seems like we do a good job of getting guys in here who know how to play the game and can step in and fill in," said Green, who has been among League leaders in three-point shooting and buried a huge three in the fourth overtime Sunday that gave Atlanta a five-point lead they never relinquished. "We have a veteran team and when you have a veteran team guys can go down and guys just have to step up and play basketball. We've had a lot of different scenarios this season where guys have been out. That's the nature of this season. We're trying to make the best of it."
This group has been challenged from the start of the season when they played nine games in the first 12 days. Thrown together as such, they've come together.
"We are good friends," said Teague. "We all like each other. I think that's what makes everything easy on the floor. When you like each other off the court you're fine playing with each other."
"We've got a good experienced team, guys who have been there, who have been around the block, that understand what it takes to compete and play on this level," said Joe Johnson, who scored a game-high 37 and played 55:23 against Utah, his third game in four in which he'd played at least 41 minutes. "When their number's called they're ready. So it's been working in our favor. We just have to put together more wins."
Down the stretch, the schedule finally may work in the Hawks' favor. Heading into Tuesday's game at Milwaukee, Atlanta, which sits 1 1/2 games behind Orlando for third in the East, has 16 games remaining, 10 of those at home. In addition, only six of the Hawks' final 16 games are against .500-or-better teams (they also have two with New York, which is one game below .500). Of their final four games, all at home, three are against Boston, the L.A. Clippers and Dallas, already in the playoffs. All three, especially the Celtics and Mavericks, with older rosters, may be resting regulars.
The Hawks are not looking that far ahead. their goal is to keep focused on the game in front of them and let the chips — and, they hope, no more players — fall where they may.
"We just have to hang in there," Johnson said. "I think everything will come together at the right time. We just want to be clicking going into the playoffs. We've still got to position ourselves to get a great spot. Of course, we want home court advantage in the first round so we've got a lot more work to do."