The Atlanta Hawks take the court against the Timberwolves. Al Horford tries a 20-footer, Marvin Williams works his stroke to shake his shot from refridgeration. A layup in transition misses resulting in a Joe Johnson tip-in. The offense is taking it's first strides, but there is no need. This squad is already first in flight with a 16-to-4 run. Within the first fix minutes of basketball, the Wolves were forced into turning the ball over six times. Mike Woodson stands along the sideline taking steady steps between his bench and the scorers table. like every other game, he watches the team he assembled from scratch. Josh Smith picks up his second foul voices his frustration and takes his seat. A few assistants talk the young man down as Zaza Pachulia takes his place inside the paint. Zaza comes from a bench filled with gunslingers and potent role players, some of which are well-payed with enough talent to start elsewhere. But they like what they got going on here.
The Hawks are looking great. But last year had a similar start as they went undefeated for as long as the Lakers did. This team is so dynamic in that they have an All-NBA Second Team superstar talent, a proven point guard who stays productive past his prime, a coach that knows how to get the most defensive effort, and a handful of intangibles. That is the very makeup of a 2nd round team. The Hawks play the right way, and when they execute they can be a match for any team in the association. As the closing minutes of the 1st Quarter dwindle, the Hawks 52% shooting from the field looks to build as Jamal Crawford and Maurice Evans spread the floor to set up Horford.
The Hawks can dive to the inside, spread out zones with sharp-shooting, take flight and outrun the opponent on both ends of the floor as Mike Woodson taught them to do well, or they can isolate and let Joe Johnson try to become a hero. And by all means is Johnson the captain of the ship, a solid 20 ppg guy who can clean up in rebounds and assists when called upon. He takes his time and finds his role, game-by-game, and although he may not be the most consistent scorer among the superstar swingmen we've seen in the NBA. His work ethic on the court is what has my respect.
But the captain is not always the leader, nor are they always the center of a team's inspiration, nor are they the embodiment of a team's character. Superstar-caliber play doesn't always guarantee that feeling of brotherhood the two guards may get when setting the springs of a half court trap, or the seamless pocket created by the forwards and center when boxing out for boards. In other words, Joe Johnson is not the one that sets the Hawks in flight, the credit falls on the child with highest hops and widest wingspan.
When my eye falls over the hardwood, I see Josh Smith as an All-Star. I see the identity of the Atlanta Hawks through him. Everyone acts differently when he takes the court, adjusting themselves for his presence. An absolute freak of nature first showcased in the 2005 Slam Dunk contest when he defeated an Amare Stoudemire that oop'ed the off-the-forehead and off-the-heels alley's of the mighty MVP that was Steve Nash. You still see that when he gets a baseline to cut through, or a step on a dribble around his defender --utilizing an uncanny speed for a man of his size-- putting any and all opponents in the paint at his mercy. Josh Smith is a high and a bad trip, an exploding force that at times runs the risk of self-destruction, he is magician and a monster. But this year he's leading the league with 2.4 blocks--every swat sparking an Atlanta fast break-- a night, 1.7 steals, 50% shooting, and a solid 15 ppg to compliment an already potent offense. He's got my vote for the all-star team, even though I'm certain he's got a longshot considering how many great forwards run in the east. And I certainly do admit that there are times I think he's playing great, only to glance at the boxscore and wondering if I'm being lied to. And I do cringe when he spots up for 3's. I -hate- his jumpshot. Watching him settle for J's has me not envying Mike Woodson's job who must show the forgiveness of the prodigal son's father. But with that said, I believe that when it all boils down to ATL hoops, Josh Smith is their muse.
We've seen him scream at officials, publicly throw tantrums with Woodson, rack up some fouls both personal and technical, and let rage thorn the execution that this Hawks squad lives and dies by. But if you ask me, it's part of the game. It's part of his game. And that's exactly why Woodson has to often resort to tough love. Now with a shaved head as a result of a lost bet he made with his team to make the playoffs in 2008, an angered Woodson reminds me of Steve Harvey, but it's all part of this team's dynamic. Talent need their intangibles in order to succeed.
Even though this team is getting a lot out of their veterans like Bibby, Evans, and Crawford, this is still a team of potential. Aside from a team that is now executing this is a team that will evolve. They made their mistakes, like drafting Marvin Williams over Chris Paul and Deron Williams, or trading Pau Gasol for Shareef Abdur-Rahim you could argue, but they've put it all behind them for the sake of the fight. This team has an identity that sees success even when they have yet to find themselves.
If these trends show consistency, an explosive bench of Evans/Crawford's scoring, Joe Johnson's versatilities, Josh Smith's energy, and a defense looking to smother from inside and out as passionately without the ball as they can with it, this team is going to do more than the 2nd round sweeping they suffered to the Cavaliers last May. The Atlanta Hawks will receive a well-deserved raise.