Fear the Hawks? Maybe this time
ATLANTA -- On to the next round, and on to the most pertinent question regarding the Atlanta Hawks: How relevant will their postseason flameouts from 2008 (blown out in Game 7 in Boston) and 2009 (swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers) be in 2010?
Josh Smith, why don't you tackle that one:
"Irrelevant. We've got Jamal [Crawford]. We're healthy, the depth is there, and we don't have to rely solely on the starters to get the job done."
That is the state of the Hawks in a nutshell, and Exhibit A to back up Smith's point was Sunday's box score from Atlanta's 95-74 dismantling of the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7, showing a team-high 22 points from the player Smith referenced: Crawford, the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year.
But there's more to the Hawks that makes them a different team from the one we've grown accustomed to seeing on the wrong end of a pulverization in the past two postseasons.
Exhibit B also comes from the box score, the 16 points and 15 rebounds posted by the guy a lot of people may have forgotten was chosen to the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
A question: Would you rather have a center averaging 15.6 points and 9.9 rebounds, shooting 56 percent from the field and 74 percent from the line? Or would you take his counterpart, a guy with a flashier nickname but with averages of just 9.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.5 fouls, not to mention his 48 percent field goal percentage and his 38 percent success rate from the line?
Granted, Horford got his numbers against a team missing its starting center, while Howard was pretty much double-teamed by the Charlotte Bobcats (remember them? they were eliminated about a month ago, it seems) for all four games of Orlando's first-round series.
But as mentioned above, Horford is no fluke. He is an All-Star, and his matchup with Howard could be one of the biggest keys to the series.
"It seems like they hit every shot when we play them," Smith said. "They have a load down low, but we have a guy that makes outside jump shots in Al, so there's going to be some mismatches exploited in the series, we've just got to see where they're at first."
Orlando won the season series 3-1 against the Hawks, the victories coming by an average of 22.3 points with Atlanta getting its only victory in the final meeting (March 24) on a putback dunk by Smith at the final buzzer after the Hawks blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead.
A similar blown lead in Game 5 of this series against the Bucks was what put the Hawks on the brink of elimination, but Games 6 and 7 showed a wellspring of resilience that Atlanta didn't have in its bag of tricks the past two postseasons.
Consider this: Sunday's 21-point victory happened with the Hawks getting only eight points from their best player, Joe Johnson, whose biggest contributions came on the defensive end as he limited John Salmons to 5-for-18 shooting as Atlanta forced the Bucks to miss more than two-thirds of their shots.
The seven-game series could be seen as more miles on the Hawks' treads, but it's always an open question heading into a series against a well-rested team -- especially in a league in which playing three or four games every week is the norm -- whether too much rest will translate into rust.
"It's different every time. We could be tired, or they could have been sitting too long. You just have to wait and see how it plays out," said Mike Bibby, who produced his best all-around game of the series in the clincher, scoring 15 points and knocking down three 3-pointers while playing a team-high 41 minutes.
Bibby, Smith, Johnson, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia make up the core of Hawks veterans who have spearheaded the franchise's growth from a team that missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons to one that has now made it to the second round of the postseason for the second straight year.
Sunday's victory was enough of a cause for celebration that the Hawks released silver, red and blue streamers from the rafters as the final horn sounded. But at this point in the team's morphing process, the success bar will need to be set higher in order for Johnson (who will be an unrestricted free agent) to want to return, and for coach Mike Woodson (finishing up the final season of his contract) to be asked back.
And that is why the nature of these final two victories over the Bucks seemed to give Atlanta a juicier jolt of confidence to carry into the second round, along with the realization that nothing truly positive will have been accomplished unless and until the hunger to take the next step takes hold in that locker room.
In Games 6 and 7, it did.
"You could hear a pin drop in here after Wednesday's game, but we just step up when our backs are against the wall," said Smith, whose 15 points, five rebounds and two blocks -- despite the fact that he was limited by foul trouble -- helped make this one so easy.
Of course, the challenge will be tougher against an Orlando team that limited the Bobcats to just 85.5 points per game in the first round, and if Stan Van Gundy learned one thing (aside from never, ever again commenting on the referees) over the course of the past two weeks, it was that any opponent of Atlanta's can dictate the tempo and control the flow.
But the Bucks did just that and still lost, and nobody can argue that the Magic are light-years better than Milwaukee.
Yet the Hawks proved something to themselves after their Game 5 meltdown: It was only one game, the series still had some life left, and the livelier team in Game 6 and Game 7 was the one that emerged victorious.
"I think we're better. Everyone has another year under their belt, almost everyone had that Game 7 from last year [against Miami in the first round] to draw upon, everyone's getting older and used to it," Bibby said. "Everyone counted us out except us, and we never gave up."
And if that attitude carries over into the next series, an extra year's worth of wisdom -- not to mention the missing link that has been filled by Crawford -- could make the Hawks more than a speed bump on what is expected to be a fairly smooth road to the conference finals for the Orlando Magic.