Monday, December 15, 2008

Statement Game in the A-T-L

On Saturday night in Atlanta, the Hawks put together a fantastic 48-minute effort to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-92 putting an end to the Cavs’ franchise-record tying 11-game winning streak. I’d made a point of DVR’ing the game in part because of the Atlanta Hawks- they're a solid team with quality young players, and lots of fun to watch. But, feeling as though I hadn’t seen enough of them during their dominating run, I was really tuning to watch the Cavaliers. I wanted to see LeBron hit his nightly average of three jaw-dropping dunks and to check out his much-improved supporting cast- but there was a change of plans. Instead, Saturday night turned out to be a prime example of why the Hawks, while maybe not title contenders, should be mentioned as one of the NBA’s better teams. As I watched the game, a few thoughts occurred to me:


The Cleveland Cavaliers pregame body language is fantastic. These guys really seem to like each other. Before what was frankly a non-descript mid-December road game, watching the Cavs in the moments leading up to the opening tip confirmed my belief that they'll represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The flurry of hugs, chest bumps and choreographed handshakes and fist bumps among every member of the team must be a beautiful sight for any Cavs fan. Also, LeBron James made a point of engaging every one of his teammates before taking the floor- a great show of solidarity.


Dominique Wilkins is an outstanding commentator. In a world full of knowledgeable, TV-friendly basketball people, the number of subpar commentators on local NBA broadcasts is staggering. Even among those with an engaging television presence, there’s generally a ridiculous level of unabashed homerism. I realize local announcers are paid by the team, and that they have a greater familiarity with, and affinity for, “their guys”, but it’s almost impossible to find a local telecast that isn’t sports’ equivalent of Fox News.


With that said, ‘Nique was great! Wilkins was engaging, and provided thoughtful, balanced commentary, based on experiences from a brilliant 15-year career. Also, ‘Nique didn’t feel the need to obnoxiously remind us every few minutes that he played once, an ailment that plagues many players-turned-commentators.


Speaking of Dominique’s career…enjoy!


I’m not really sure what to make of Marvin Williams. The #2 overall pick of the 2005 draft, Williams has developed into a nice young player (at just 22), averaging 14 ppg and 5.6 rpg since becoming a starter at the start of the 2006 season. As Marvin approaches the end of his first pro contract, though solid, I’m having a tough time figuring out his niche. On the plus side, he’s athletic, versatile, and seemingly a great teammate. With these qualities, Williams should be on his way to a long NBA career.


However, struggles with consistency, evidenced by his statistical drop-off in December (particularly the last 10 days), along with what appears to be a plateau in his improvement raise some questions. I can't figure out if this is a pause on Marvin Williams’ rise to stardom, or if he’s “just a solid team guy” and won’t develop into much more.


I can’t really settle on a superlative to describe Al Horford. As good as Horford was in college, his game has evolved beautifully since his arrival in the NBA. He’s extended the range on his offensive game and developed a smooth shooting stroke, to go along with his surprising speed and ballhandling, and his intensity in pursuing rebounds and loose balls. This was fully on display during an otherwise irrelevant second quarter stretch- Horford fought for a defensive rebound at one end, dribbled the length of the floor, as fast with the ball as most guys were without it, and was ultimately set up for a 17-foot baseline jumper, which may not have fallen, but was obviously well within his range. At the other end of the floor, Horford was switched onto LeBron James on the perimeter- and when LeBron decided to drive, Horford closed down on him beautifully, forcing him back to the perimiter. The great D on LeBron came just seconds before Horford hit the deck in pursuit of a loose ball- which of course he came up with!


In addition to his undeniable talent, Al Horford’s desire and toughness make him a catalyst for much of the Hawks’ success. Clearly, the Hawks’ sophomore star sets the tone for this team.



In Wins

In Losses

Points

12.6

8.6

Rebounds

9.5

6.5

Assists

2.9

2

Blocks

1.86

1.13

Steals

0.86

0.5

FG%

57.8%

45.2%




Down the stretch against Cleveland, Atlanta made the plays that winning teams make. It’s becoming evident that last year was NO fluke- the Hawks are tough, talented and heady. In the final minutes of Saturday night’s game, the Hawks made four plays that clearly showed that this team knows how to win close games against top competition.


With 2:30 remaining and the Cavs up 90-89, Mike Bibby got the ball on the left wing, 5-6 feet behind the 3-point line. In a classic gutsy Bibby move, he simply drilled a 28-footer, without hesitation; 92-90 Hawks. The next trip down the floor, Joe Johnson, again from the left wing, took LeBron James off the dribble, getting to the left baseline and hitting a soft fadeaway; 94-90 Hawks. Later, with just 45 seconds left and the Hawks up 2, Delonte West had a clean look at a 3-pointer from the corner that could have put the Cavs in front, but Josh Smith closed on him in a flash and easily swatted the shot out of bounds. Finally, with just 20 seconds remaining and the Hawks up 94-92, Bibby missed a jumper that resulted in a long rebound that looked like it would go to Cleveland, but Al Horford jumped into the fray and tipped the ball out to the top of the key where Marvin Williams recovered it, and was intentionally fouled.


At four vital moments in the game's closing minutes, the Hawks had the opportunity to make a play- and each time they capitalized. These are the types of plays that quality teams make, and Saturday night’s home win over the red-hot Cavaliers is the signature win of the Hawks’ early season, and could really spark this team to new heights.


Note: The Celtics roll into Atlanta on Wednesday night; this is ESPN's 7:00pm game and will be an absolute must-see!


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