The Hawks are learning to put teams away when they develop a lead. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBA/Getty Images

Finishing strong

By Jon Cooper

Nothing beats the NBA for pure drama and excitement.

Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Larry Drew certainly can appreciate that, as he played in the league for a decade before embarking on a coaching career.

But as a coach, Drew has found that sometimes a little less drama can be a good thing. 

This year's Hawks have embraced so many challenges, they seemingly don't know what to do when there's no challenge to embrace. So they sometimes create a challenge where there shouldn't be one, which leaves Drew puzzled and frustrated, yet also optimistic.

"We have shown that we have the ability to [build leads]," he said. "But once you do that, you can't just squander them away by doing things out of character. That has happened with us in some of these games where we have gotten leads and then we just start doing things just out of character. Hopefully they will learn from it. We have to understand that when we do get leads, teams are going to make runs, and they're going to look for that opening to give them just a little bit of momentum. You saw the [Nov. 24th] Clippers game, where we didn't handle certain situations very well. They got on a little bit of run, and they cut a 25-point lead to like 10 or 11. But we were able to maintain our composure and play through it. Hopefully we will learn from those type games and we'll get better at it."

That knack for letting leads slip has the players' attention, and they have different explanations for why it happens. But almost all agree the remedy is simple.

"Early in the season, you just have to start developing a killer instinct," veteran guard Lou Williams, one of the first-year Hawks who is still finding his way within Drew's system, said. "Once you get a team down, you can't allow those guys to get back in a game. Look at the [Nov. 27] Bulls game [against Milwaukee], where they had a 27-point lead and ended up losing the game. You can't allow those type of things to happen. For us, it's just something we have to develop. A killer instinct. When we have a team down, keep them down."

Like overcoming any adversity, the ability to overcome this one and learn to play with a lead is a matter of mind over matter.

"The first thing is not to relax but to take the same approach you took during the run you made," center Zaza Pachulia said after the Dec. 7 win against Washington, when Atlanta let an 18-point lead shrink to two eventually pulling away. "We kind of just relaxed at both ends of the floor. That's what happens. They play hard. We knew that. In stretches we played hard, too. Apparently, we thought that they'd just give up, but nobody is giving up. Everybody's trying to win games."

Forward Josh Smith, who was the hero in the win against the Wizards, gives the opponents credit for making comebacks but does admit that complacency, real or imagined, has been something of a habit the team needs to drop.

"This is a game of runs," Smith said. "Teams are going to make a run, but as long as we know how to stop the run and get wins in close games, I think that's the most important part. Just play as though we don't have the lead. Play the way we played in order to get the lead, because sometimes teams get conservative and kind of lackadaisical. Just keep your foot on the gas and don't let up."

There is something of a silver lining in all these hair-raising games with the hair-pulling moments. 

"When you blow a team out, you really don't get anything out of the game," Smith said. "I think we're learning. We still have a lot of learning to do, but we're still okay."

Finding a way to put teams away is all part of learning to win together, another facet of the game the Hawks are developing as they get a feel for playing with one another.

"It's something that just doesn't come overnight," Drew said. "It's something that you eventually develop. You have to go through those type of situations to understand it. I love being in the position where we do get big leads and we do get separation. I'd rather have that problem than the other way around. But it's something you just develop, and I have all the confidence in the world that our guys will develop that."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta
Second photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images