It's How You Finish...
The Hawks eye a big finish to gain momentum entering the Playoffs.
By Jon Cooper
The finish line is in sight on what has been a wildly unpredictable 2011-12 season and the Atlanta Hawks are assured of their fifth straight playoff berth.
That and the first-round opponent, the Atlantic Division Champion Boston Celtics, is about all that is a sure thing.
As the team heads into its final two games —with the L.A. Clippers tonight then with Dallas on Thursday — it still doesn’t know where the Opening Round will open. Unlike last year, when their position and Games One and Two destination were locked in, this time around, that’s still to be determined.
The Hawks hold a one-game lead over Boston but the schedule favors the Celtics, as Atlanta plays two teams battling for position out West, while Boston plays Miami, which is pretty much locked in and Milwaukee, which is locked out. (Boston owns the tie-breaker with Atlanta by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division.)
For Atlanta, it’s win and stay home. It’s as much a mental edge as a physical one.
"You want your team and the mindset of understanding the importance of how to finish the season,” said Hawks Head Coach Larry Drew. “Regardless of what the situation is, whether you're locked in or whether you're not locked in, there is still meaning with each game that is being played. We have to approach every game in a very smart fashion. We have not shown the consistency across the board throughout the season.
"I think it's more important to carry momentum going into the playoffs and carry a good taste in your mouth going into the playoffs," he added. "We have go out and play our best basketball."
"We've shown we can be a great team," said Joe Johnson. "We have to prove that we're one of the best teams in this league and try to get some momentum going into the playoffs. We're in control of having home-court advantage. We've just got to come out and take care of business."
The Hawks have done just that coming down the stretch, as they've won seven of their last 10 games and 14 of their last 20, with only one losing streak in there — a two-gamer, coming off the four-overtime win against Utah, when they lost, 108-101, at Milwaukee on March 27, then 98-77 to Chicago the next night. Since those losses, Atlanta has lost four games, only one of them by more than five points (a rare off-night in which they were blown out by Toronto at Philips).
Atlanta has rebounded from each loss, a 90-80 win over New York at Philips on March 30, after the Chicago loss, winning by 27 over Charlotte, four days off after a 95-90 loss at Philadelphia, by 28 at Orlando following an 88-86 overtime loss in Boston, and then returning the favor to the Raptors, winning 109-87 in Toronto. How they bounce back from Sunday's 113-112 loss to New York will be seen against the hungry Clippers.
“We know we have to come out and play every game,” said point guard Jeff Teague, one of two Hawks to play in every game this season (Josh Smith is the other). “It's that time of year where you have to clean everything up and you want to be at your best going into the playoffs. So you've just got to come out and play hard. It's been a long season, everybody's banged up but it's a great opportunity this year. It's up in the air for everybody.”
That the Hawks have played as well as they have is a tribute to their character. Atlanta has been hit very hard by injuries, having used 11 different starting lineups. Josh Smith is the fifth different Hawk to start at center, as Al Horford has been out most of the season and Zaza Pachulia has missed the last five games —and possibly the final two. Neither player’s status for the playoffs is known.
“I think the most important thing is that we're trying to get healthy,” said guard Willie Green. “Obviously, we don't have Z and Al but we've got guys on this team that can come in and give us a lift. The important thing is getting healthy, making sure everybody is on the same page at both ends of the floor. The coaching staff is doing a tremendous job and we're excited. That's the biggest thing. We're excited about the possibilities of where we can be. We just have to put it together.”
The character and experience on the club should help do that.
“We've got most of the guys on this team we've been around the block a couple of times in the League," Green said. "We have plenty of experience on this team.”
“I think it's just a matter of how bad you want it," said Vladimir Radmanovic, who played on the 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers, who reached the NBA Finals before losing in seven to Boston. "When you get in the playoffs, obviously, you're playing the same team. You get to know the guys you play and they get to know you. There are no surprises anymore. You just have to prepare yourself mentally and physically for each and every game, get a lot of work on who you're guarding and how you can beat the guys that are guarding you. That's pretty much what it has come to and whoever does that best has he best chance to win."
Playing good defense increases the chance to win and Atlanta’s defense has been among the best in the League. The Hawks have allowed opponents 93.1 ppg, fifth in the league, while holding opponents to 44.3 percent shooting (11th).
The defense on the road has been even better, as Atlanta’s 92.1 ppg is second in the League and its winning record 17-16 road record is team’s first in 13 years. That includes a 4-1 road trip, the franchise’s best five-game trip since 1968, the first season in Atlanta, when they went 5-0.
“Obviously, if you want to win in the playoffs you have to win on the road,” said Radmanovic. “If you're not a No. 1 seed, you're not going to have that home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. It comes down to how many games you're able to steal on the road.”
“We came out this season and said we were going to win games on the road and we did that,” said Teague. “Clinching a playoff spot is always big. We worked hard for it. Guys are still working hard. We want to get that home-court so we still have business to take care of.”