Monday, May 9, 2011

Riddle Me This ...

It was beautiful to behold. For one critical fourth quarter last night, the Atlanta Hawks put their egos, their iso's, and their normal dysfunction on the back burner. Joe Johnson and Al Horford moved well off-ball, thus spacing the floor and getting themselves and their teammates good shots. Jeff Teague did his finest impression of his opposing counterpart, barreling through the lane and spinning in a few superb layups. And in the most surprising development of the night, Josh Smith jettisoned his "J-Smoove" persona and just played "regular smooth." After a display of his usual ill-advised long jumpers for most of the game had the Phillips Arena crowd groaning in agony, Smith finally did what everyone from coaches to teammates to fans wish he'd do all the time: wreaked havoc in the paint. Smith's final line last night looked like something Tim Duncan might have thrown up in his postseason prime: 23 points, 16 boards, 8 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and a game-high plus-minus of +18. Good God. It was 12 minutes of marvelous, synchronized ball; five guys on the floor making the smart plays, the hustle plays, and the pretty, highlight-worthy plays too. It wasn't perfect, but it was really, really good. When the Hawks play this brand of basketball, they're not necessarily unstoppable, but they're a damned difficult team to beat.

... Which raises the question, where do these Hawks and that Josh Smith go for so much of the time? Are they chained up in the locker room, only released in moments of dire need? Are they floating on the bench, diaphanous ghosts that possess the players' bodies at intervals?

(I realize that I'm exhuming a dead horse to beat it further here, but it still baffles me too much to let it go.)

Personally, this team reminds me most closely of a recurring Saturday-morning cartoon shtick. You know the old gag where a character is contemplating two diametrically opposed courses of action, and the little cartoon angel and devil appear on either shoulder and have a pithy debate? That's the Hawks.

What's so interesting (and so frustrating) is that this goes way beyond any of the normal cliches associated with the sort of choppy play Atlanta has become known for. It's not about playing down to bad opponents and up to good ones; plenty of teams have that particular problem yet manage to overcome it. It doesn't appear to be about the kind of internal tensions and strife that imploded the Lakers this year, either. At least not in the overt, "wow something is really wrong there!" way. There have been a handful of snide comments or swaggering, self-defensive (and self-aggrandizing) remarks bandied about in post-game interviews, but overall, nothing significantly troubling. It's not even about apathy, or chemistry, or affectations.

And it's not about coaching. Not entirely, anyway. Like Mike Woodson before him, Larry Drew is trying to rein in a disparate collection of egos and finding it a difficult and largely unrewarding task, but he's not a bad coach, or at least not nearly as terrible as he's being made out by certain corners of the media. If the overwhelming evidence of game film and shooting percentages can't make Smith stop hoisting those shots, I don't think any psychological coaching tricks can. Nor can they make Joe Johnson pass more. When you give a player max money because he's exceptional at scoring buckets, you might want to brace yourself for him to try and do a lot of it. At a certain point, players' personalities are set, and that's all she wrote. You live with the good and the bad.

So it's not any of that. Not really. Those are the symptoms, they're not the actual disease.

What it is, is a team somehow playing very, very differently from a philosophical standpoint from night to night. There are drastic mental chasms separating this team from itself, like watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in high-intensity overdrive. If they were just the iso-Joe, shaky defense, J-Smoove bad-decisions, not-feeding-Horford-enough-in-the-post Hawks, well, that would stink, but it would be a concrete identity. Then the press, the fans, and everyone else would at least have something like this to hang their hats on:

"The Hawks are a team full of undisciplined gunners whose skills and athleticism are good for a playoff birth every year and maybe a little more, depending on the match-ups." Think of the razor-sharp clarity we'd have if that were the definitive book on this team. It's hardly superlative, but at least it's solid ground. And maybe more importantly, it's also a clearly-defined ceiling.

The thing is, then they go out and play like they did last night, and you just have to wonder. We saw a few similar games (or at least parts of games) scattered throughout the regular season. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Atlanta would start making the extra pass, attacking and banging inside, and looking better even than just a well-comported, smart, unselfish team. For those magical little flashes, the Hawks looked downright title-contender imposing ... and then the following night (or half, or quarter, or possession) Joe would be in ball-stopper mode and Smith would be jacking up more ridiculous shots and we'd wonder if the whole thing was some crazy dream.

Last night was the first playoff evidence of the Hawks' full capabilities. In round 1, it felt like Atlanta got lucky with the Magic, both with match-ups and with Orlando's non-existent shooting. Then came the road win in game 1 of this Bulls series, which seemed more predicated on a bunch of improbable shots falling than on any particularly resplendent team play. Here, finally, was a glimpse for the rest of the NBA fandom into a completely different prism of Hawks basketball. My roommate, a casual fan who roots for the Celtics, watched the fourth quarter with me and was thoroughly impressed. I had to explain that we know better than to look for an encore in game 5, that to be a Hawks fan is to own a unique pathos that loosely translates: "It does not matter what we just witnessed. We have no compass at all. We don't know how or when, because the Hawks are a hellish dichotomy, but they probably will screw this up. They will be erratic and disjointed again down the line. It's inevitable." Last night, they were both the exception and the rule it proves or does not prove. It's maddening to contemplate.

Atlanta might win this series. In the playoffs, you'd be a fool to count on anything being definitive, no matter how obvious the premise may be. (See: Grizzlies : Round 1 and Lakers : Self-destruction.) But you'd also be a fool, if you've watched the Hawks this year, to think last night carried any implications other than a "2" in the win column for this series. For a team with so much talent and potential, the deadliest flaw is not poor decision making on the floor. It's a wavering non-identity that prohibits their decisions, good and bad, from having any personality or context.

Sadly, ultimately, the Atlanta Hawks are so protean as to be unrecognizable. Despite a handful of well-known stars on the roster, as a team, they might as well be faceless.

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