Larry Drew feels the team's camaraderie will help them in the second half. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBA/Getty Images
Hawks not satisfied with roller coaster first half
The Atlanta Hawks aren't where they want to be at the midway point, but they like where they're headed.
By Jon Cooper
The 2012-13 NBA season, like every NBA season, is a unique journey.
Through their first 41 games, the Atlanta Hawks have gone on a ride filled with plenty of ups and downs, with more of the former than the latter, as evidence by their 23-18 record.
But you won't hear any of them asking, "Are we there yet?"
They know the answer is a resounding, "No!"
Head coach Larry Drew has enjoyed what he's seen but believes the best part of this team's ride is still to come.
"I'm content where we are right now," Drew said. "The last couple of weeks have been a little rough for us, certainly, but we have been dealing with a lot as well, particularly injury and guys who were able to play first nights and not second nights. Just a lot of things that we just have to deal with, but I feel like we've kind of weathered the storm."
The Hawks sit in second in the Southeast Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference, but their position as hunters is quite favorable. They are 4.5 games behind Southeast-leading Miami but a comfortable 8.5 games ahead of third-place Orlando. Within the Eastern Conference, Atlanta is only two games back of fourth-place Brooklyn and only 2.5 back of third-place Indiana. The Hawks have victories over each in the first half. They also have a victory over fifth-place Chicago, who is 1.5 games ahead of them. Behind them are Milwaukee, a game back, and Boston, 2.5 back. Philadelphia is six games back in ninth.
While the playoffs are very much in the Hawks' plans, thoughts of them are not. Not yet. Atlanta is too busy looking to the immediate future and improving their day-to-day play.
"I think we're still trying to find what we're about as a team, trying to find our identity," center Al Horford, who is among league leaders in double-doubles (he nearly had his first triple-double on Nov. 21 against Washington) and field goal percentage, said. "There were some games that we played great, there were some other games where we came out a little flat. So we just need to be more consistent as a team. We're going to be better the second half of the year."
With eight new faces on its opening night roster, Atlanta needed a few games to find its stride. After starting 2-3, with the losses to the much-improved Houston Rockets, the defending NBA Champion Heat, and at the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta reeled off six straight wins to close out November, then won five of six to open December.
They finished December 10-5 and at one point boasted an NBA-best 7-1 in the second game of back-to-back games. But doubts started to creep in as the team showed a propensity for letting big leads get away in wins. Then, early in 2013, their inability to hold a 15-point halftime lead against Boston sent the team into a tailspin in which they lost four straight games and eight of 10.
A schedule that saw the Hawks play four games in five nights three times in a 23-day stretch (Dec. 28 through Jan. 9) didn't help, nor did the ensuing rash of injuries, which especially devastated the backcourt.
At different times, guards Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson and Lou Williams were all unavailable. As the second half begins, only Korver is healthy, while Harris is ready to return, Stevenson is close, and Morrow is making progress. Williams, who was an electrifying presence and, statistically was having the best three-point-shooting season and one of the best all-around seasons of his career, was lost for the remainder of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Jan. 18 against Brooklyn.
The injuries to guards opened the door for the signing of former Hawk Jannero Pargo to a 10-day contract. Pargo stepped up in his first game, igniting a second-half rally that included scoring 14 fourth-quarter points to lift Atlanta over Minnesota on Monday.
"We've got to keep filling in for the guys that are injured," forward Josh Smith, who, according to Elias Sports Bureau, enters this season's second half as the only player in NBA history with career averages better than 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game, said. "Right now a lot of guys that play a lot of minutes are injured. We've got to have some people step in and do what they're capable of doing."
Different people stepping up has been a constant and a reason the Hawks are so positive about the next 41 games.
Another reason and a contributing factor to them being where they are in the first place is this group really likes each other.
"Everybody's bought into the system, everybody likes each other, everybody gets along," point guard Jeff Teague said. "When you have that, it's not hard to play together. When you have great chemistry off the court, you have it on the court. Everybody's learned each other's game. I think that's the biggest thing. With film, and playing against each other in prior seasons, things like that, it's just a good group."
Of course, Teague's ability to share the ball has been a vital component in keeping guys happy.
Heading into the second half, Teague was 10th in the NBA in assists per 48 minutes (9.8) and has shown a maturity of a player in his fourth NBA season. He recorded his first back-to-back double-doubles on Nov. 23 at Charlotte and Nov. 24 against the Clippers, then did it again on Jan. 16 and 18, both against Brooklyn.
Teague's unselfishness has been contagious. Over their first 41 games, the Hawks have had 19 games with least 24 assists, five of those with at least 30 dimes. They're 16-3 and 5-0 in those games.
Drew's up-tempo pace has added to the good feelings.
"In the [Jan. 16] Brooklyn game, to come out and play the way we did, I saw some things that, as I told our coaching staff, we have to kind of get back to that old-school mentality as far as running," he said. "Sometimes the mindset is just to run. I use the term race. It's got to be a race now. We try to get the ball in Jeff's hands, we try to get that ball in Devin's hands as fast as possible and then we have to race the lanes. That's the mentality right now. I made the statement prior to the Brooklyn game and our guys responded very nicely. That's really encouraging."
"It all starts with just getting out and fast-breaking, really pushing the tempo," Korver said. "When we play like that we normally get some easier shots, and this is a team that has to get some easier shots. We can't just walk it down and just execute in the half-court. That's not one of our strengths. It's something we're growing in but tempo, tempo, tempo. It's something we talk about all the time."
They can run, and they also can fill it up from outside, as Williams, when he was in the lineup, Korver, Harris, Morrow and Stevenson gave Atlanta an outside attack that opened up the floor for Horford and Smith inside.
If, as Drew stated, Atlanta has weathered the storm and starts getting healthy bodies back, they're going to go back to being a very dangerous team. Teague feels that danger isn't rooted as much on the offensive end as on the defensive end.
"I definitely know when our defense is clicking. It's a lot easier to get buckets in transition," he said. "Playing hard, playing our defense, that's the biggest thing. In the second half we really got back to playing Hawks defense. Once we do that I think we'll be fine."
With the team's spirit Drew feels the Hawks are definitely on their way to good things.
"The morale is great. The chemistry is good, too," he said. "When you bring in a lot of new faces, people don't realize how tough it is to get everybody on the same page, you don't have a long time to do it. I think our guys are a good group, a close-knit group. There's a lot of camaraderie. A lot of camaraderie. They enjoy being around each other and you can see it. When we go out on the road, they all get together and go out to dinner. I hear them on the court, the way they talk the way they respond to one another.
"No doubt it makes my job a lot easier because I don't have to concern myself with any type of petty jealousy or what may transpire," he added. "When you know your guys like each other, when you know your guys are close and you feel good, no matter what happens, you feel that they're going to work their way through it because of their closeness."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Second photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images