Last winter, I was driving through yet another Midwest snowstorm, on the phone with Graydon, and I asked him this: “If there was one NBA team that you absolutely would NOT want to face in an NCAA-tournament type game, who would it be?” His answer was immediately the same as mine. Orlando. A team that when it’s hot is lightning hot, anchored by a dominant big, with athletic forwards all over the floor. If they were to get hot, put it together, they would be dangerous enough to pillage defensive help systems and create chaos if everything went just right.
You know the rest.
Now, I’m faced with a mental quandary. Am I imagining the same thing with the Hawks, simply because I like the idea of a repeating pattern?
They were creamed by the Magic, absolutely blown into oblivion. The Cavs beat them on back to back nights. And yet, here they are, playing a higher brand of basketball than they ever have with this core, sweeping the mighty Celtics, sitting at 24-13, and armed with so many weapons that if they were to click… Oh, and have I mentioned they’re only four games back of the top seed in the East?
I think there’s still a gap there, but they’ve got two months to figure it out before the final month of the regular season, which features another game with LA and two more versus Cleveland. They could fall apart as they looked to be doing for the past week before the Celtics games, or hit another gear.Nothing would surprise me. But I do believe that too often we focus on imperfect but great things and ignore that which is new. We did it with Cleveland before LeBron took over Detroit. We did it with Orlando before they took Game 3 in Orlando. And we could be doing it with Atlanta.
Crawford makes the offense a whole new level of terrifying. In years past, if Joe Johnson was having a bad night, you were fine. If he was just having an average night, you could live with it. But now there’s Crawford. If everyone else is clicking and Johnson’s struggling, odds are Crawford will fill in the gap. If Johnson is having a good night and the offense is still lumbering, Crawford kick-fires it. And apparently he’s got a particularly bad taste in his mouth for the Celtics, since he’s pretty much single handedly shown their asses the door the last three times they’ve played. Crawford has spent so much time wackadoo systems that he’s learned an uncanny knack for slipping into the crevices of broken plays or transition jacknifed breaks, somehow always being in a hesitant passer’s line of site with his feet squarely beyond the arc. Having a guy that can make broken possessions into three point buckets? Huge.
As I wrote on Twitter, Joe Johnson only has one of these games like he had last night every 50 or so games. But when he does, it’s like the Archangel hath come for the reckoning. There’s just nothing you can do. There are lots of great players in this league, many of them with better overall,consistent games than Johnson. But Johnson does possess that NOVA gear that only a handful have. He can go to the next evolutionary step and if he gets there, even if it’s just for five or six minutes, he can bury you, break your back, and leave you with nothing but that frustrated sigh. Eddie House knows it. Ray Allen knows it. And Marquis Daniels may be learning it soon.
But then, the Hawks are still flawed, deeply. Most games Johnson doesn’t even approach that level, even though he constantly shoots like he’s trying to reach it. Crawford struggles defending. Mo Evans gets too much floor time for as lost as he sees sometimes. You can rattle Josh Smith. Al Horford gives in to his emotions. The list goes on. So the Hawks are likely not going to make it past the second round, almost definitely not winning the East, and definitely not winning the title.
But imagine if they did. You’re talking about a global shift in our thought processes. Mike Woodson with a ring. And all of a sudden you’re looking at what would likely be a re-signing Joe Johnson, a terrific group of role players, and, oh yeah, Josh Smith and Al Horford are still incredibly young. It would be terrifying and cruel.
But for now, let’s simply allow this to be known. The Celtics want no part of Atlanta in the playoffs. All that running, all that jumping, all that speed and athleticism isn’t just a means to create points, it grabs Boston by the neck and shows it in front of a mirror how old it is. The Hawks are young, fast, and powerful.
They’re a warrior clan, and for now, they seem to have invented warfare for themselves.