Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wait For It ... And, There It Is

Before the playoffs tipped off, my roommate asked me how I thought my beloved Hawks might fair this postseason. Having watched them play choppy, undisciplined basketball for much of the season, and knowing full well that Larry Drew has pretty much made a mockery of the term "head coach", I replied with a less-than-glowing assessment. In fact, my words were downright dripping with an unsubtle mixture of vitriol and melancholy. After all, we were going up against Orlando again. The team that swept us by a cumulative 101 points in round 2 last year. "Aw, come on," my buddy said. "Have a little faith, man!"

And for four games, I tried, I really did. When Jamal Crawford suddenly turned into Steve Kerr off the bench, and we allowed Dwight Howard to impose his will but were STILL winning games, I started getting some zany ideas. The Magic couldn't shoot, and we couldn't miss. In a blink, we were up three-one. We could do this, right?

And then, last night, the other shoe dropped with a momentum-swinging, confidence-killing thud.

The NBA: Where "Crap, I knew it!" Happens.

As evidenced by its having been relegated to NBA TV, this has been an ugly mess of a series, the antithesis of a marquee matchup. Sadly, the Hawks redefined "ugly mess" in game five. Josh Smith and Al Horford were at least respectable in defeat, combining for 31 points and 25 boards, but the rest of Atlanta's roster was a wasteland of production on both ends of the floor. We knew Jamal Crawford, our bench rock star and life support in games 1-4, was probably regressing to the mean at some point, but "to the mean" would have been a lot better than the 8 points and 1 rebound he put up last night. When Marvin Williams is your second-highest scorer in a game (12 pts.), it bodes ill for your chances. Depressing stat of the night: the only Hawks with a +/- on the good side of nil all played 8 or less minutes. Everyone else: abysmal.

The defining play of the game didn't seem like much when it happened, but in retrospect, it was an encapsulation of the Hawks' myriad problems. The Magic already had a commanding lead, on their way to an eventual 101-76 rout, when reserve J.J. Redick checked in. He's been ice-cold all series. A glacier of uselessness. You know how he snapped out of the Ice Age? He drove the lane. J.J. Redick, the one-dimensional licensed sniper, barreled into the paint, blew by everyone, and banked in a reverse layup. J.J. REDICK!!!! Nobody on the Hawks collapsed the interior on the play, no help defense came over. He took it to the hoop unmolested and nailed the shot, kick-starting Orlando's thus-far silent bench and finding his own stroke in the process. How did Atlanta let it happen? Because they'd already quit. Sure, they were in a hole, but there was plenty of clock left. The shoreline was still in sight, but they chose to drown rather than keep swimming for it. That moment was indicative of what we've seen all year from this team. Let's be honest, when J.J. Redick makes that play on you, you've lost any and all claim to complimentary adjectives regarding your pluckiness or ability to handle adversity.

If this were a different team, or I were a less rational fan, the loss would be easier to shake off. "One game at a time" and such. But the heart of the matter, as exemplified by the Redick play, was voiced succinctly last night by the opposition. In a post-game interview, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, referring to the Magic's perimeter shooters finally getting it going after four games of near-total ineffectiveness, said "this isn't an aberration. We've been doing this for four years. The first four games were the aberration." I'm inclined to agree with him, and not just vis-a-vis Orlando's gunning acumen. The Hawks played above themselves for the past four games; last night was closer to reality. After a hopeful respite, the lack of identity and the rudderless coaching we've witnessed all season surfaced with a vengeance. Too much glorified pick-up play, too little coherence. Yes, Orlando shot 11 of 26 from deep, and there's nothing the Hawks, who don't close well on outside shooters, could have done about that. And yes, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford will probably play better tomorrow at Phillips Arena (I hope), but the fundamental problems that were so glaringly evident last night aren't going away.

It's true that the Hawks could still win this series. Even with the tectonic momentum shift Orlando perpetrated last night, Atlanta just needs to pull out one more win to advance. But if we can't muster any fight against J.J. Redick, what happens if we're trailing the Bulls with the tornado that is Derrick Rose on the floor in round 2? Nothing good, that's what. Game 5 was, unfortunately, "Hawks basketball" in its most recently prevalent incarnation. Their only shot is to jettison that indifference and carelessness before it's too late. Problem: this ain't that kind of team, Larry Drew ain't that kind of coach, and the whole thing looks pretty futile right now. Sigh, at least we can watch incredible basketball somewhere for the next two months, even if it's nowhere near the ATL.

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