By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
January 1, 2013
Once the exclusive domain of college football bowl games, New Year’s Day has only recently become a day in which the NBA regularly schedules contests, such as Tuesday’s interconference affair between the New Orleans Hornets and Atlanta Hawks. In each of the previous two years, the Hornets have played a road game on Jan. 1, but this is the first time in the franchise’s New Orleans era (dating back to the 2002-03 season) that they will host a game.
With the Sugar Bowl taking place Wednesday and the Super Bowl slated for Feb. 3, the Hornets and Hawks will tip off what promises be a memorable early portion of the 2013 sports calendar in New Orleans. Tuesday’s contest marks the first time New Orleans and Atlanta have met during the 2012-13 NBA regular season. They will wrap up their annual two-game head-to-head series on Friday, Feb. 8, part of a three-game Hornets road trip necessitated by the culmination of Mardi Gras.
Atlanta entered 2013 as one of the NBA’s surprise success stories over the first two months of the season. The Hawks are 19-9 record, good for third place in the Eastern Conference. Projected as perhaps a fringe playoff team by many NBA analysts, Atlanta instead was ahead of more highly-regarded clubs such as Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn and Boston in the East standings.
Tuesday’s game against the Hawks marks the first home appearance of the season for shooting guard Eric Gordon, who was instrumental in the Hornets’ Saturday comeback victory against the Bobcats.
Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Anthony Davis vs. Josh Smith
Two of the NBA’s premier interior defenders meet for the first time in Davis’ professional career. Smith ranks seventh in the NBA in blocks average, rejecting 2.19 shots per game. Meanwhile, Davis was averaging 1.94 blocks per contest, which will likely place him in the top 15 of the league once he plays in enough games to qualify for statistical ranking.
After qualifying for the Eastern Conference playoffs five consecutive years but never advancing past the second round of the postseason during that span, the Hawks were due for an overhaul. Atlanta signaled a new direction for its franchise in the summer of 2012, when it traded All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn. With Johnson gone, many basketball analysts projected a downward spiral for the Hawks, who would have to compensate for the loss of their leading scorer. Instead, Atlanta has gotten off to a tremendous start, improving upon its 40-26 record from last season. The Hawks have already posted impressive road victories at Oklahoma City and Memphis, two of the NBA’s premier teams.
After trotting out essentially the same core group for the past few years, the current Hawks have a much different look in 2012-13, with nine new players among the 14 on the roster. Their backcourt has a drastically altered makeup, due to the addition of veterans Lou Williams (previously with Philadelphia), Devin Harris (Utah), Kyle Korver (Chicago), Anthony Morrow (Brooklyn) and DeShawn Stevenson (Brooklyn). New frontcourt veterans include Anthony Tolliver (Minnesota) and Johan Petro (Brooklyn). The Hawks also picked guard John Jenkins (Vanderbilt) and Mike Scott (Virginia) in the 2012 NBA Draft, though neither has been given much playing time.
Josh Smith is one of the NBA’s most gifted players, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound high-flying forward who can impact a game in a multitude of ways. Smith is Atlanta’s leading scorer, as well as its second-leading rebounder and top shot-blocker. The Atlanta native is also second on the Hawks in assists.
On the rise
Fourth-year point guard Jeff Teague has been handed the keys to the Hawks’ offense and allowed to develop into a promising player. The ultra-quick Teague is the older brother of Chicago Bulls rookie Marquis Teague, who teamed with Anthony Davis to help the University of Kentucky capture the 2012 NCAA championship. The elder Teague also was a college teammate of Al-Farouq Aminu at Wake Forest.
How has Atlanta improved this season, despite the departure of Johnson, a perennial All-Star? Perimeter shooting has a lot to do with it. Through Christmas, long-range shooters Korver, Williams, Stevenson, Teague, Harris, Smith and Morrow each had drained at least 10 three-pointers this season. The Hawks rank eighth in the NBA in percentage from beyond the arc.
On the sideline
Former NBA point guard Larry Drew has guided the Hawks to a playoff appearance in each of his previous two seasons as head coach. Drew put himself in early contention for 2012-13 Coach of the Year by leading Atlanta to an impressive 19-9 start.
Did you know?
In terms of college experience, Atlanta’s roster has a distinct Southern feel to it, including three players from the Southeastern Conference. Al Horford won two national championships at Florida, while Teague played at Wake Forest. Jenkins helped Vanderbilt capture the SEC tournament title in 2012, an event that took place in the New Orleans Arena.
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