Hawks Defeat the Timberwolves: One More Win In a Season of Hope

(AP Photo/John Amis)

Josh Smith and his Hawks teammates could not be stopped on this night

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.

5 Responses to “Hawks Defeat the Timberwolves: One More Win In a Season of Hope”

  1. Patrick says:

    Thanks for writing something about the Hawks. The Hawks have definitely put themselves in a stronger position to compete in the Eastern Conference as a contender. Last year’s unexpected seven-game playoff series was a positive metamorphosis of sorts and saved Mike Woodson’s job here in Atlanta.

    The Hawks haven’t been in this position since the waning days of Lenny Wilkens’ tenure in the late 1990′s.

    Atlanta can beat Boston–just not on the road (yet). Atlanta can beat Cleveland–just not on the road (yet). Bron is 16-5 against my Hawks, but I beleive the tide is turning. Let’s face it a lot of teams had the Hawks number: Hawks were 3-15 vs. the Jazz in this decade. Hadn’t beaten Portland in nearly five years. Lost to Detroit many times prior to 2008-09 season. This year has been payback. The Hawks have beaten the Jazz decisively at home, along with Portland and New Orleans. And for the first time the Hawks swept the Bulls and Pistons. Of course, no Isiah or Jordan, but we will take it!

    The Hawks big problem is handling pressure on the road against good teams.

    Mike Bibby has been instrumental in the Hawks turnaround, but at times he has streaks of cold shooting and poor decision-making ON THE ROAD and it hurts the Hawks in situations like that road game versus Cleveland. Bibby was part of Chris Webber’s Sacramento Kings team that could never get over the hump known as the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal had referred to the Kings as the Queens in an attempt to get in their heads and it apparently worked. Webber couldn’t hit free throws to save his life, and Bibby went cold from the field and the Kings’ potential was stymied.

    I hope Bibby is able to breakthrough on the road for this year’s Hawks’ team. However, Bibby went cold against Cleveland and turned the ball over a couple of times and received a technical foul along with the always mercurial Josh Smith.

    Case in point: Cleveland- Boston.

    And Al Horford I believed summed up that Cleveland loss and the obstacles that may be holding the Hawks back.

    “We shouldn’t even be talking to the refs,” Horford said. “We have to go out there and play. The Cavs are the best team in the league, so we need to go out and play. Until guys understand that, we’re going to be going through this.”

    Al Horford has emerged in only his second year as a vocal leader.

    http://www.ajc.com/services/content/printedition/2009/03/20/schultz0320.html

    The Hawks were complaining too much when things didn’t go their way. There has to be accountable for their own play and stay disciplined in negative situations on the court–especially on the road– and it seems Horford’s comments attempt to speak to the Hawks occasional need to whine to the refs.

    Horford is a two-time NCAA champion, and Bibby won a NCAA title a decade ago, but it seems a veteran was needed to help balance the roster and GM Rick Sund should have looked into finding ways to acquire someone such as a Marcus Camby via trade who has playoff experience and size. After Cleveland one-point win over the Hawks a few weeks back, the Cavs didn’t stand pat, they went and got Joe Smith (before Ben Wallace got hurt)…the Cavs continued to retool their roster and eventually found Mo Williams who replaced the underperforming, injury-prone Larry Hughes as Bron’s new ‘Scottie Pippen’ or ‘James Worthy’..a capable, consistent scorer who is fearless– whether it is in Cleveland or on the road..

    A more experienced veteran(s) would have helped the Hawks to give Coach Woodson more options and the minimize the first quarter jitters of a big road game during the regular season or in the playoffs against a team such as Boston or Cleveland.

    Big Al’s comments are prophetic, guys got to keep their emotions under control and be able to execute….and “until guys understand that, we’re going to be going through this…”

    The Hawks didn’t give up against the Cavs and made it close in the end (102-96), but GM Rick Sund should have tried to tweak the roster by acquiring a veteran with the ability to start if needed. Acquiring someone like a Camby would have been great insurance in future playoff battles versus someone like the Boston’s Garnett or Z from the Cavs.

  2. Co Co says:

    Great to meet you last night Jerold.

    The Hawks need to run their offense through Al. You’d be amazed at how wins and losses coincide with his touches. He’s severely underutilized and Woody needs to address it.

    I am excited about these next 3 games and as always I expect the Hawks to win all of them ;)

  3. HarveyDent says:

    Good read about the Hawks. Glad to see my ol’ hometown team is building upon last year’s unexpected success in the playoffs but I still have questions about the team

    *What’s Mike Woodson’s job situation?
    *Has the ownership battle ended?
    *Are Woodson and Josh Smith still at each others throats?

    Al Horford should be the engine of that team but as they stand now the Hawks have more talent than even the Atlanta Air Force days, defensively and offensively.

  4. michelle says:

    Jerold,

    I was with you until you brought up the Kings. The Kings weren’t any different than teams of the past that had to get over the hump. Bulls/Detroit or Detroit/Celtics to name a few. The Lakers were better coached had more veterans and the refs in their pocket. Keep in mind that no team at that time was beating the Lakers. They were sweeping the Spurs in ass whoopin like fashion. When the Kings were ready to take the next step Webb their best and most important player torn up his knee in the playoffs against the Mavs. The rest is history. So don’t hate on the Kings.

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