Jon Cooper - Role'n with the Punches

Role'n With the Punches
The Hawks bench players are ready to contribute regardless of the situation.
By Jon Cooper

There is a big difference between playing with pride and playing for it.

The ability of a team to do the former during the beginning and middle of the season is what keeps it from doing the latter at season's end.

The Hawks' second unit of Jamal Crawford, Mo Evans, Jeff Teague, Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith know the difference and are making a difference every night.

"Our job is to create energy," said Crawford, who is second on the team in scoring (16.5 ppg) and is tops among players who have not made a start. "The first unit does such a good job we just have to come in and either sustain that or provide a lift. That's what we try to do every single night."

Thus far, they have, and in the process have put some luster into coming off the bench, hardly a glamorous job.

Atlanta's 118-83 rout of Chicago on Dec. 9 at Philips Arena was a perfect example. Crawford led the team in scoring with 29 points in 34 minutes. Evans and Teague both saw more than 20 minutes, Pachulia chipped in 15, and Smith added eight (he would have added more, but dislocated his thumb at the end of the third quarter). Even reserves Jason Collins and Randolph Morris got into the act.

Most important was that Joe Johnson led the starters playing 29:23. That little number is big considering that he averages more than 37 minutes a night and that four of the five starters play at least 30 minutes.

"To sit down and relax a whole quarter and a half, it's great," said Johnson afterward. "It gives guys on the bench, guys who don't play as much, it gives them a chance to get into a little rhythm. That's valuable for us as a team because we'll need those guys down the stretch."

Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson knows he can't wait that long, that he needs the second unit right now.

"I'm very satisfied," he said. "Minutes are somewhat down with our starters because we have played our bench guys a little bit more."

Woodson can do that because he knows that regardless of what he feels the team needs at any given moment, he can find it in someone seated to his left.

"We have four or five solid guys coming off the bench. For a lot of teams, they could log a lot of minutes," said Evans, a six-year veteran, who has played with six different teams and has never missed the playoffs. "We've all accepted our roles and when called upon we try and perform. Some nights it's a little less and some nights it's a lot more."

"That's a good thing about having depth in different positions and guys that you can trust and believe in taking the floor when you take the starters out," added Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick who is playing in his 15th season. "Whenever the starters get off to a slow start we look at each other on the bench and say, 'We've got to get it going.' Or when they get off to a quick start we look at each other and tell each other 'We've got to keep it going.' It's just all about having trust and faith in one another."

That trust and faith comes with experience, as Crawford, Smith, Evans and Pachulia combine for 35 seasons of NBA experience.

"I think it helps if you've been through those situations before and you've seen a lot of situations on the court and you know how to react to them," said Crawford.

The group also provides an invaluable base of knowledge for Teague.

"That makes my job a lot easier," said the Hawks' 2009 first-round pick, who ranks in the top 10 among NBA rookies in assists per game (2.2) and steals per game (.76). "They know what they're supposed to do. I've just got to get the ball up and let them do the rest."

Evans believes that the heroics of the second unit go beyond game night.

"A lot of the contributions that we make to the team go unseen, in practice, getting these guys ready, helping prepare them and giving them the right looks," he said. "I think that's where we've made the biggest leaps is in practice it's more competitive."

"We definitely have fun because we're basically playing against a team that has gone to the playoffs the last two years, took Boston to seven games [two years ago], and went to the second round [last year]," said Crawford, who has never been to the Playoffs. "Hopefully we're making them better and they're definitely making us better. Hopefully as a unit we're continuing to get better. We all have the same goal and that's to win."

To that end, Woodson will continue holding playing time like a carrot on the end of a stick in front of his stable of second-unit horses.

"It's like I tell all these guys, it's what you do with the minutes that you get," he said. "So if you get two, three, four minutes, boy, you better make the best of it."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.