The Last Word - Peaks, Valleys and the Magic

Lang Whitaker is many things - executive editor of Slam Magazine, a contributor for NBA TV, a book author, and most importantly, a die-hard Hawks fan. After starting 2-for-2 in pushing the Hawks into the postseason, he's back for his third season in 2009-10 to share his thoughts on the team exclusively for Hawks.com. Check back every Thursday throughout the season to read his latest musings, and read him every day at www.SLAMonline.com

Peaks, Valleys, and the Magic
by Lang Whitaker

“What’s the matter with the Hawks?”

My wife asked me this question last night during the third quarter of the Hawks/Clippers game, when the Hawks were down about 10 points. She seemed very upset about it, which is strange because my wife doesn’t even really like sports. She did know, mostly by being around me, that the Hawks had lost two straight coming into the Clippers game. And now here they were losing again.

“Why can’t they pull it through?” she asked.

After I got her to stop mixing her sports metaphors, I patiently explained that the NBA season is a marathon. There are peaks and valleys, ebbs and lulls, high tides and low tides; basically, it’s a long season. The trick, I explained, was riding out those valleys, and praying -- hoping -- that the peaks hit at the proper time. Besides, it’s not like the Hawks have been playing horribly of late. They beat Houston in Houston. They had a good half against the Spurs. They lost a competitive game at Oklahoma City. The swept the Celtics. And they ended up beating the Clippers.

But in the middle of all that, they got drilled by the Magic.

For me, and most Hawks fans, I’m guessing, that was the most disheartening Hawks moment in a while. Yes, we lost that back-to-back to the Cavs a few weeks ago, but at least those games were competitive, and save for some creative timekeeping, we might have at least split the series. At the very least, we were in those games.

Yet against the Orlando Magic this season, the Hawks have looked their worst. The Hawks are 0-3 against our Southeast Division rivals. The Hawks lost those three games by a combined 67 points. In those three games, they’ve averaged under 40 percent shooting from the floor, 36.7 rebounds per game (to Orlando’s 41 boards per game) and a weak 15.3 assists per game. In short, Orlando has dominated the Hawks this season. Mainly because of Dwight Howard, who’s averaged 21.7 ppg (the most he’s averaged against any Eastern Conference team except Washington and Jersey) and 14.3 rpg.

If the Hawks are ever going to get to the NBA Finals, they’ve got to figure out a way through Orlando and Cleveland. I’m not as concerned about Cleveland, if only because we’ve been competitive when we’re healthy. It used to be that Boston was also in our way, but adding Jamal Crawford seems to have magically tipped the matchups in our favor in that rivalry. (Oh, sorry Celtics, I forgot it’s not a rivalry. Ahem.) Maybe these last two Orlando games have involved some let-down -- both games were the second nights of back-to-backs after emotional home wins against Boston. Or maybe the Hawks just haven’t solved the Magic trick yet.

It was Albert Einstein -- or as Joe Theismann once called him, Norman Einstein -- who said, “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results.” The Hawks have tried playing their game against Orlando a few times, with bad results. They’ve had limited success, such as later in this most recent loss when they began doubling Dwight, which seemed to work pretty well. I also kept waiting for Al Horford to get touches out away from underneath the basket, where he could knock down some of those 17-footers he’s been money on all season and pull Dwight away from the rim, but that never really happened.

“They just have our number right now,” Al told the AJC’s Mike Cunningham after the game. “We have to figure them out.”

The Hawks have to try something different. As much as Mike Woodson gets criticized for being inflexible, he does try to switch things up when nothing’s working (e.g. the zone the Hawks went to against Oklahoma City that pulled them back into the game.)

If the Hawks are going to get past the Magic, they’re either going to have to: A) Alter the personnel and go get someone to make them better able to handle Dwight, though I’m not sure that that person even exists on this planet; B) Change their plan of attack. B appears to be the easiest answer, at least for now. Either way, if the Hawks want to continue climbing up the Eastern Conference, as long as Orlando’s in the way, it seems to me that something’s gotta give.

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at lang@harris-pub.com.

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