Growth is measured in many ways. Kitchen walls across the country are tick marked by youngsters who cannot wait to increase another inch or two. Maturity in spirit and mind enable people to withstand the trails and tribulations life presents. Pronouncing and praising a person’s inward expansion, saying that they did better, is an outstanding compliment. On Friday night, the Atlanta Hawks (46-34) secured home court advantage for the first round of the ’09 playoffs with a thrilling 122-118 victory over the Indiana Pacers (34-45).

The night’s performance showed the results of growth and development. Last year’s Cinderella slippers no longer fit this team. These are no longer the city of Atlanta’s ugly stepchildren. Call them kin to T.I.

They’re Kings.

The territory these Hawks are flying through is foreign and uncertain. They remain a youthful team and while the taste of last year’s playoff run is still fresh, the second round lies beyond the realm of their collective imaginations. As a franchise, the Hawks have not advanced to the Conference semi-finals since the strike shortened ’98-’99 season. This is ten years in the making.

Some pundits wrote last year’s success off as an accident. They said that abnormalities may occur when the five (5) through eight (8) seeds in the east tend to be average at best. Sometimes a team can emerge and play well for a two month stretch after being average for the first part of the season. Last year’s Hawks were described as a glitch in the matrix. Experts predicted a return to futility, despair and disappointment. Yet, instead of folding and falling back into the crowd, this group separated themselves from the conference cellar dwellers and proved to be a contender in the East. The road from bottom feeder to contender was completed. The win loss record shows this much.

As the end of the regular season approaches, Atlanta is habitually showing why they are a top tier team in the Eastern Conference. They possess a dependable All Star performer in Joe Johnson and back court mate Mike Bibby has been brilliant all season. They have a nucleus of young talent in Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford. The bench is strong with Flip Murray,  Mo Evans and Zaza Pachulia.  They can certainly score the basketball, but they also rebound and defend well enough to compete with any team on any given night.

This game is microcosm of what has to happen for Atlanta to win a playoff series and make good on the promise that home court advantage provides. Joe Johnson (24 points) is the heart and soul of this team. He is the defacto leader, and has shown a propensity to show up big in big games. A number of his shots over the course of this game came in response to an Indiana basket, or stopped a Pacer hot streak. Whether attacking via dribble drive, shooting the 3 point shot or backing opponents down on the block, Johnson is as dangerous as any other guard in the league within the confines of Phillips Arena. I asked Joe to compare his previous playoff experiences with what he sees in this team.

Jerold Wells: You’ve been on playoff teams. What do you like about this team that gives your confidence for advancing into the second round.

JJ: “We’re a young team but at the same time we’re experienced. The guys know what to expect because of what we did last year against Boston. We understand how to win playoff games and we know that we have to protect this house.”

Flip Murray (15 points) continued his season long habit of bringing offense off the bench. Murray gives the aggressiveness and proven shot making ability as a sixth man that was absent last year. He is a tremendous boost for this team. I posed the same question to Murray.

FM: “The record speaks for itself, we got the 4th seed tonight. We have home court. That’s big for us because as a team (at home) we’re very confident.”

Mike Bibby (15 points, 9 assists) and Josh Smith (30 points, 10 rebounds) showed an incredible feel for each other over the course of this game. I counted five passes from Bibby to Smith that led directly to baskets; either by means of alley oop or nifty bounce passes after screens. Understand folks: these were easy, pure point guard type passes that almost invite the player receiving the pass to score.  Mike Bibby is still cold blooded people. He ended the first half with a pull up jumper that almost seemed too easy.

This connection is definitely worth watching because there are not many players as physically gifted as Josh Smith. When points are being spoon fed to him the way they were in this game, combined with his offensive rebounding ability, he can be a game changer. Head Coach Mike Woodson spoke about the duo in glowing terms when I asked him about their effectiveness.

JW: Mike Bibby and Josh Smith were huge tonight. Talk about that connection.

MW: “Smooth’s (Josh Smith) been consistent for us down the stretch. I’m happy with his progress. Bibby runs this ship for me. He gets guys in position on the court and finds guys when they’re open. The impact of those two shows directly in the wins and losses.”

Al Horford (22 points, 15 rebounds) showed why he is one of the premier young power forwards in  the game. His offensive skill set has progressed nicely from last year and he showcased nice touch facing up from 10 feet as well as a nifty jump hook. Even more, he runs the floor like a man possessed. Al routinely beat the Pacer’s bigs down court and finished when he touched the ball in the paint. Horford also connected on 6 of 7 free throws. Such accuracy bodes well for any big man in the NBA. Al also spoke about Bibby in glowing terms.

AH: “It’s great to have a point guard that can score and distribute. It really helps this team and makes our jobs easier.”

Home court advantage does not guarantee anything. Until the game ball goes up and wins are earned, this accomplishment is nothing. Right now, all of the delight and bliss are carefully reserved. This is for the long suffering fans of a once proud franchise. I asked hometown products Randolph Morris and Josh Smith about what it means to them personally having a home series in Atlanta.

JW: “With you being from this area, what does homecourt advantage mean to you personally?”

RM: “It means a lot. Family and friends will be a nice boost against whoever we play in the first round. I think we match up well against Philly and Miami (potential first round opponents), but being here at home will definitely help.”

JS: “We know what we can do at home. The Boston series showed us how good we can be. Plus, it’s great for the city and the people who have supported us from day one. It gives the city something to brag about.”

Good times are back again.

Game Notes:

It’s uncanny how bad things happen to bad teams. Indiana’s point guard play was spotty in the playmaking department. TJ Ford and Jarrett Jack took turns looking pretty bad distributing the ball. Unforced errors, missed layups, and the inability to get good looks at the end of the shot clock pretty much cost Indiana this game.

On the bright side, Danny Granger is a monster. He scored 35 and should have had more. He’s the best player on the team and yet  the Pacers went long stretched without him touching the ball. His free throw line jumper was a thing of beauty in the second half. One dribble pull ups, off screens, off the pick and roll, he was money.

5 Responses to “Growth”

  1. michelle says:

    I like this! Nice job!

  2. Miranda says:

    No wonder it was raining ice, the wind was howling fiercely and it sounded like FAMU and Grambling’s bands were on the roof!!! LOL – and this after it had been 70 degrees in downtown Atlanta earlier Friday!

  3. Patrick says:

    Nice piece.

    Growth should be the theme for the Hawks 2008-09 basketball season. Coach Mike Woodson has had more critics than supporters in recent years, and many had advocated his firing. Despite last year’s 37 win season, it was enough to secure a playoff berth and a first-round matchup with the formidable, and much hyped Boston Celtics. Prior to the series, Gatorade was already running commercials featuring KG as if they already won the title.

    The Hawks definitely gave the eventual world champs a scare, but the lopsided-ness of the road losses was more of a sign of lack of growth than talent.

    The Hawks unquestioned leader is Joe Johnson along with Mike Bibby as a strong lieutenant.

    However, for the Hawks, to get to the ‘next level’, more growth is needed on Josh Smith’s part along with Marvin Williams specifically.

    Smith is an athletic freak with many physical intangibles, but can he expand his game as an offensive player? Can he shoot the ball with the proficiency of a Rashard Lewis or Peja or Mehmet Okur? Josh will hit a three point shot here and there, and sometimes the coaching staff or fans cringe at the sight of Josh jacking up shots beyond the arc?

    I would advocate him to concentrate on being a better rebounder and shot blocker, focusing more on the defensive side. However, his propensity to shoot threes is frustrating, but intriguing. Now Marvin Williams probably has a better shooting technique than Josh, but Marvin is apparently more reluctant to take three point shots. Williams, with encouragement from management, added the three point shot to his repertoire just this year.

    Both are 6’9, but erratic as three-points shooters. Teams like Orlando or Detroit with Rasheed or Utah with Okur have big men who can consistently hit the three and it is a unique weapon to have in your offensive arsenal–especially as a playoff team.

    Remember Robert Horry during his Houston, Lakers and Spurs days? Or Bruce Bowen in his older prime during the Spurs title runs?

    For the Hawks to get to the next level with the current group of players, Josh and Marvin must find a way to become more proficient as shooters.

    The Hawks are undersized in the front court, and a tad slow and not as athletic in the backcourt.

    I have seen someone such as Big Baby Glen Davis put up consecutive double-doubles in Boston win(s) over the Hawks, and I have seen Iggy and Thad Young use their athleticism to their advantage to neutralize our backcourt stars in Bibby and Johnson.

    The Hawks are a capable team in transition right now. Mide Woodson’s squad surprised us during their playoff run last year versus Boston and grew up before our eyes. However, it’s time for them to grow up some more.

  4. Temple3 says:

    This is an illuminating piece, but I’m not sold.

    I’d forgotten the Pacers were still in the NBA. Moreover, Patrick has hit on all the structural weaknesses of this team. It seems to me like 34 losses screams, “We play to the level of our competition.” Since ATL won’t be an 8th seed, they could very well be at home after looking past their first round opponent.

    Will the fans even show up if they’re not playing a headlining opponent?

    Will this team keep its focus in those critical minutes in the middle and end of quarters?

    With all of their talent — and all of their losses, I say they probably do what other 46 win teams do — show promise and flame out.

    I’m with Patrick on this one.

  5. NLP Zine says:

    What a facinating article. I’m looking for a NLP expert to help with a project, who’s your mentor?