Commentary

Singular success: Hawks hound Howard

Updated: April 29, 2011, 10:03 AM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Dwight HowardKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDwight Howard found a heavyweight defensive challenger in veteran Jason Collins, right.

ATLANTA -- The celebration was on, and the other Hawks were getting the camera time. Jamal Crawford, for his big shots, clutch free throws that earned him "M-V-P" chants -- for the first time in his career, he said. Joe Johnson, for his typically steady 23 points. Al Horford, for another double-double. And Josh Smith, for the game-clinching block of Jason Richardson's potential game-tying shot at the buzzer.

Meanwhile, all was quiet in the far corner of Atlanta's locker room, home to Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia. They teased each other about their fashion sense, or lack thereof, while accounting for six games' worth of bumps and dings, and quietly took in the satisfaction of knowing they'd contained the game's most indomitable force.

"I'm all bruised up," Pachulia said.

The two combined for three points in 40 minutes of action in the Hawks' 84-81, series-clinching win over Orlando on Thursday. In six games, they made six baskets. Combined.

But don't let that fool you. What those two did defensively, Thursday night and all series, was the biggest reason the Hawks stunned the Magic in six games to advance to the second round for a third straight season -- becoming one of only three teams, along with the Lakers and Celtics, to make that claim.

The Hawks frustrated Orlando's Dwight Howard into 33 turnovers in six games and, by single-covering him, limited him to only three assists. While he still averaged 27 points and 15.5 rebounds per game for the series, Atlanta's ability to single-cover him left the rest of the Magic offense to rot. In six games, the Magic averaged just 88.7 points and shot just 40.9 percent -- including a ghastly 26.2 percent on 3s.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesZaza Pachulia managed to get under Dwight Howard's skin.

Atlanta struggled to score nearly as much, but it didn't matter. By containing Howard, the Hawks exposed the Magic as an empty shell of a team surrounding a dominating centerpiece. Howard made 63 percent of his shots, but without the extra space afforded by double-teams of Howard, his teammates made only 36.1 percent.

On Thursday night, Collins set the tone by forcing turnovers on three of Howard's first four touches. Each time, Howard tried dribbling on the left block but could get nowhere against Collins' physical defense; then Collins or a digging Kirk Hinrich would get a hand on the ball.

"It's just something you get used to doing," Collins said, "over the years, guarding Shaq, guarding Tim Duncan. I actually learned it from Kenyon Martin [a former teammate in New Jersey]. With one hand you hold him up so he can't back you down, and with the other hand you flick at the ball."

A year ago, Collins could barely stay on the court against Howard because he picked up fouls so quickly, par for the course in an embarrassing defeat for the Hawks -- the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history. Pachulia didn't fare much better, as the Hawks rarely let him single-cover Howard. The Hawks talked down the series this week, but afterward, their sense of atonement for that humiliation couldn't be ignored.

"It feels great," Pachulia said, with emphasis. "There's losing, and there's a butt-kicking."

A key reason was Collins. He was overweight a year ago but got in better shape working out against twin brother Jarron in Los Angeles (low-scoring affairs, no doubt), and as a starter in this series, he felt he got more respect from the zebras, too.

"Just being in better shape," Collins said, "but also coach [Larry] Drew starting me against him. The refs, if you start off the game being physical, it's a difference, than if you come into the game and there's a change in the way that Dwight's being guarded."

Howard still got numbers -- 25 and 15 Thursday night -- but the Hawks accomplished Drew's goals of making him earn his points against single coverage, taking away the 3-point line and shutting down the Magic's pick-and-roll game. Drew said he felt they did at least two of the three in every game, but the single coverage on Howard was what enabled the other two successes.

"It's not easy," Pachulia said. "He's very athletic, strong, a great post-up player. We sacrificed ourselves and our bodies, starting with [Collins], of course. He set the tone. He was amazing all series. He was forcing turnovers, making him take tough shots. You can't keep this guy down to 10, 15 points, but we frustrated him."

The Hawks advance to the conference semifinals against Chicago, and it won't be easy -- they've lost eight straight games in this round over the past two years, and they might not have Hinrich after he injured his knee while making a runner in the lane late in the fourth quarter.

Collins and Pachulia might have a very different role in that series. In fact, Collins might not play much at all. In this one, however, the duo's puny stats -- not to mention their miniscule media entourage -- spoke little of the enormity of their contribution.