January 29, 2012
Has any NBA team faced a more difficult early-season schedule than the New Orleans Hornets? Based on the NBA standings through Jan. 24, of New Orleans’ 21 games in the months of December and January, 16 opponents currently sport winning records. The team’s December and January slate includes matchups against a large chunk of the league’s plus-.500 teams, including four of the Eastern Conference’s top six teams and a total of nine games against the Western Conference’s best eight squads. The sizeable group of stellar East opponents continues Sunday night with a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, who prevailed in 13 of their first 19 games this season.
With a revised 66-game schedule that includes fewer interconference meetings than in a conventional year, Sunday’s game in New Orleans marks the only time the Hornets and Hawks will face each other this season. The Hornets have won each of the last three encounters over the Hawks, including sweeping the season series 2-0 in 2010-11. NOLA posted one of the largest margins of victory in franchise history over Atlanta last season, a 100-59 rout at Philips Arena. The Hornets also have not lost to the Hawks in the Crescent City since Nov. 5, 2008.
The Hawks feature several difficult players to match up with, including versatile power forward Josh Smith and high-scoring shooting guard Joe Johnson. Atlanta’s roster also boasts dependable center Al Horford, but the University of Florida product may miss the rest of the regular season with a pectoral injury. Many NBA analysts expected Horford’s injury to cause the immediate demise of the Hawks, but they won six of their next seven games after Horford was sidelined.
Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Jason Smith vs. Josh Smith
The battle of the Smiths at the ‘4’ position could go a long way toward determining which team prevails on Sunday. The Hawks’ Smith is a 6-foot-9, 225-pound explosive leaper who often serves as a barometer for his team. When the energetic Smith is blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and finishing around the basket, Atlanta is difficult to beat. Jason Smith will focus on boxing out his namesake and drawing him away from the hoop on defense by draining mid-range jumpers.
HORNETS.COM SCOUTING REPORT: ATLANTA HAWKS
After spending the early portion of the previous decade at the bottom of the NBA standings, the Hawks have reached the Eastern Conference postseason four consecutive times. They’ve won exactly one playoff series in each of the past three years, while averaging nearly 50 wins per regular season. In other words, the Hawks have been an above-average squad, but one that is hoping the continued maturity and improvement of its youthful roster leads to greater things in the future. Through Jan. 24, Atlanta was leading the Southeast Division, slightly ahead of its more hyped rivals, the star-studded Miami Heat and the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic. The Hawks were perched atop the competitive division despite the injury absence of key frontcourt cog Al Horford, who has been sidelined since Jan. 11 with a torn pectoral muscle, a major injury that is generally only seen on the football field. The unfortunate injury is expected to put Horford out of action for a period of 3-4 months, a timeframe that could stretch into the 2012 NBA playoffs. Despite losing a critical member of their lineup, the Hawks have performed well early in 2011-12, already appearing to be a virtual lock to make a fifth straight trip to the postseason.
For a period of a few days in December, the Hawks appeared intent on signing virtually every scoring-minded veteran who was available on the free-agent market. Although it seemed like a questionable approach at the time, the result has been a deeper roster – which has come in handy during the compressed schedule. The most well-known name in the group of Atlanta pickups is 15-year pro Tracy McGrady, a former All-Star who remains a dangerous scorer in spurts. The Hawks also signed a pair of former Hornets, including bench sparkplug Jannero Pargo and swingman Willie Green, the latter a member of NOLA’s 2011 playoff squad. Another newcomer who receives significant playing time is perimeter-shooting small forward Vladimir Radmanovic. A rare 27-year-old NBA rookie, power forward Ivan Johnson provides muscle and hard-nosed play in the paint.
There’s little flashiness to Joe Johnson’s game, but year after year, the shooting guard leads the Hawks in scoring and carries them to repeated winning records. The former Arkansas Razorbacks standout is off to an excellent start in 2011-12, shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line. Johnson uses his sturdy 6-foot-7 frame to post up smaller guards, but is also effective off the dribble and has shooting range well beyond the three-point arc.
Hawk on the rise
After serving as veteran Mike Bibby’s apprentice for the majority of his first two NBA seasons, point guard Jeff Teague enjoyed a breakthrough 2011 playoff series vs. Chicago and league MVP Derrick Rose. Teague scored 20-plus points in three games of the second-round matchup, a key reason the Hawks were able to defeat the Bulls twice before being eliminated in six games. Incidentally, Teague’s younger brother Marquis could make it two Teagues in the league very soon. Marquis was one of the highest-rated players of the 2011 high school class and is currently a freshman at the University of Kentucky.
On the sideline
A longtime NBA assistant coach whose name had frequently come up as a candidate to move up to a head-coaching role, Larry Drew took over the Hawks’ post prior to the 2010-11 season. In his first 100 regular season games with the Hawks, he was 57-43, including an outstanding 13-5 start to 2011-12. Drew was a point guard for 10 seasons in the NBA, concluding his career in 1990-91 with the Lakers.
Did you know?
The Hawks originated as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50, before moving to Milwaukee and later St. Louis over the next six years. They finally gained stability as a franchise in 1968 when they moved to Atlanta, their home now for 44 years.
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