(AP Photo/John Amis)
In sports, talent equals hope. So long as you have plenty of the former you will always have the latter. A team that fills its roster with brilliant athletes gives life to its fan base. These teams allow for the possibility of success; they give credence to the ethos “maybe next year.” Monday night at Phillips Arena, the Atlanta Hawks showed exactly how the equation talent equals hope is formulated.
The Minnesota Timberwolves did not offer much by way of resistance during the course of this romp and the outcome was decided after the Hawks closed the first half mightily to take a 58-36 lead. The backcourt depth of this Hawks team, and an indicator of just how much talent this squad has, was on full display as 6th man Flip Murray (who led all scorers with 30 points) converted basket after basket over the shorter and lighter Timberwolves guards. Murray provided a spark with his scoring and the Hawks followed suit. The game marked the 43rd win of 2009 and guaranteed the Hawks a winning season this year, their first since the strike shortened ’98-’99 season.
There are some who will look at this game and mark it as no more than another win towards this team’s goal of 50 for the season. The Timberwolves are a young team and as Coach Woodson lamented in his post game remarks, “Young teams don’t win consistently in this league.” Not very much is expected of Minnesota and they certainly performed up to (or down to?) those low expectations with an assortment of careless turnovers, poor execution, and spotty defense. Couple youth with the absence of starting power forward, Al Jefferson, and you have a team teetering on the edge of irrelevance.
This was a game that the Hawks were supposed to win. Not only did they win but they did so convincingly. That is the difference between last year’s Hawks and this year’s edition. Last year’s team may have played down to their competition. They may have allowed the Timberwolves to hang around, creating a little more drama than necessary. This year potential and discipline have intermingled to create a team that is both style and substance. They beat bad teams, defend the home court and play with a sense of entitlement. The Atlanta Hawks do not lack for confidence and it shows on the court.
I asked Coach Mike Woodson to comment on what he would like to take from this game into the next three home games against San Antonio, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers and his response was typical but also professional: “The team needs to focus on protecting home court, establishing an identity in games, and continuing to build on the wins they already have.”
Such tasks seem simple enough but there are still times when the Hawks allow good teams to dictate to them how they will play instead of imposing their will and staying in their comfort zone. This game was played at the Hawks pace and every set seemed to render an open shot. In essence, the Hawks played to their strengths and won the game handily. Consider Coach Woodson pleased with the effort.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about this game is that not too long ago these Atlanta Hawks were the very team that they defeated. They were not closely following every win, eyeing the differences between a fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs and home court advantage. They were not looking forward to playing three of the league’s elite teams. They were not searching for ways to prove their mettle to those who doubt there validity as an elite team in the Eastern Conference. Not too long ago they were searching for positives while sleepwalking through the torturous ’04 – ’05 13 win season. They were young and inexperienced. They were searching for answers.
It is of special significance to both Coach Woodson and Josh Smith since both are holdovers from that disastrous year. When queried about the significance of clinching a winning season this year, both men pointed back to that 13 win campaign in reflection. Coach Woodson said that “the process of going from that season to this one really mirrors the growth of our team. These young men have endured the growth process and really bought in to what I’m trying to teach them.” Josh Smith echoed his coach’s words: “The wins and losses mean a lot. To go from 13 wins to a playoff team trying to get home court in the playoffs shows just how much we’ve improved.”
Perhaps the most satisfactory thing about this win is that it allows the Atlanta Hawks to see themselves at their best. The offense scored points in bunches, the defense produced turnovers in abundance, and the coaches called all the right plays and the players executed with precision. Newcomer Flip Murray proved his worth and showed a small wrinkle the Hawks have added since last year.
What then for the future? I asked Joe Johnson what he thought the team could take from this game going forward and he responded with optimism: “We have to concentrate on being intense and focused from the opening tip. We can’t afford slow starts against the better teams in the league.”
This type of performance will surely serve them well against the league’s elite.
The chasm between hope and results is bridged with talent. That is, at base, what wins and championships come from. Maturation, focus, and good coaching take that talent and turn it into victories. We witnessed that concoction first hand in this contest. A solid backcourt can carry you in this league. Mike Bibby (20 points), Flip Murray and Joe Johnson (20 points) are exceptional players and they proved it. Combine that with a solid frontcourt and you have the makings of a playoff contender. ZaZa Pachulia (10 rebounds) and Al Horford, (12 points, 13 rebounds) give enough by way of hustle and grit to make this team legitimate.
These Hawks are supremely talented. The players and coaches are gifted enough to make a post season run.
That is more than enough reason for hope.