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Shaun Powell

Joe Johnson has picked up his offensive production in the absence of Al Horford.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite loss of vital cog, Hawks keeping ship afloat

Posted Feb 3 2012 12:24PM

When Al Horford was lost perhaps for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it was supposed to have a deflating effect on the Hawks. Not the other teams.

And yet, here are the Hawks, patching that flat faster than an Indy 500 car crew, defying all logic by surviving and even thriving without their All-Star center and team leader.

In a season that doesn't make much sense for many reasons, this ranks right near the top in terms of head-scratchers. Even with a healthy Horford, the Hawks were talented yet tepid, prone to bouts of self-destruction and mental lapses, and definitely outside the loop of the elite in the East. And now, at least record-wise, they belong. What's more, they actually believe they belong. Imagine.

"We have guys around here who are expecting us to keep going like this," said Joe Johnson.

They were wiped out Thursday by the Grizzlies and yet the Hawks are 9-3 since Horford fell in a heap and required surgery. Crazy stuff has happened. Johnson started playing up to his salary (well, close enough, anyway) by raising his game across the board. Josh Smith, who always seemed more comfortable whenever Horford was off the floor, amped his level, too, and hopes it gets him to the All-Star Game. Jeff Teague is flourishing. Even Marvin Williams is, too, at times. And the bench has collectively chipped in to cover for Horford.

"When we got the news about Al and I told our players in the locker room, it was kind of a punch to the stomach," said coach Larry Drew. "As tough as it was to get that news and accept that news, it was also an opportunity to see what this team was truly made of."

It's not just Atlanta. A few others have managed to compensate for major losses. Look at the Spurs, still strong without Manu Ginobili. And the Celtics, without Rajon Rondo. Miami managed to minimize the loss of Dwyane Wade when he was out (having LeBron James helped a bit) and the same goes for the Bulls without Luol Deng.

Then Thursday night, the Grizzlies came to Atlanta without Zach Randolph and out-Hawked the Hawks, keeping themselves in contention in the West until Z-Bo returns from a bum knee. Memphis is trying to have the same life without Randolph as they had without Rudy Gay, when they bounced the Spurs from the playoffs last spring and then nearly shook up the Thunder.

"All the teams who are missing those important players are good teams and deep teams, so they can deal with it better than most," said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.

But none of those teams has a bigger margin for error than the Hawks. Horford is likely gone for the remainder of the regular season. Not only was he the Hawks' leading rebounder and an important interior defender, he also brought intangibles (smarts, leadership) needed for a team that lacks intangibles.

Atlanta isn't blessed with a franchise center (like Tim Duncan) or game-changing All-Star (LeBron, Wade) who can compensate for a missing starter. The Hawks are all about continuity and familiarity, considering most of the nucleus has been together for five and six seasons. And the Hawks have been incredibly blessed with good health until now; this is the first time Johnson, Smith or Horford has sat for a significant stretch with an injury.

The Hawks without Horford are obviously vulnerable inside -- and the Grizzlies exploited that weakness by attacking the rim relentlessly -- so normally, this would certainly spell doom. But the defense has tightened up and Johnson raised up, averaging nearly three points more per game since Horford's injury.

"I like having the ball in close situations," Johnson said. "My teammates are relying on me more right now. I have to come through."

Despite the rosy record and optimism, the Hawks need to be cautious, for a few reasons. The only team with a winning record they've beaten without Horford is Portland. The Hawks lost big to the Spurs and Sixers. And while they did win four out of five on a just-completed road trip, the true test of playing minus Horford will be determined over a longer stretch of games and when the back-to-backs add up. The Hawks are reaching deep into their bench and giving major minutes to players like Ivan Johnson; how much longer can he be productive?

As nicely as general manager Rick Sund found quality pieces at bargain prices (Tracy McGrady, Ivan Johnson, Vladimir Radmanovich), he'd be wise to stay in the hunt for Kenyon Martin and explore a trade for Chris Kaman if he can be added without pushing the Hawks much closer to the luxury tax threshold, where they don't belong.

As long as they don't drop to the middle of the pack in the East, or worse, invite disaster and flirt with missing the playoffs, Atlanta will be fine until Horford returns.

"We have to continue to take on the challenge, and although we've played well, it's still a big challenge," Drew said.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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