Last night’s dramatic, double-overtime victory over the Boston Celtics was a much-needed kick in the pants for a Hawks team that has been struggling. The Celtics arrived at Phillips Arena on a 5-game losing streak and desperate for a win. I’d like to break down the first half, analyze how the Hawks put themselves in a 27-point hole, and provide some commentary on the theatrics after halftime.
The Hawks started the game by pounding the ball inside to Josh Smith and Al Horford. The two combined to shoot 1-for-6 over the game’s first 5:43, missing many point-blank opportunities. Ivan Johnson, making his second career start, had a fast break layup and missed another layup and short jumper. He was replaced by Zaza Pachulia with 6:13 to play in the 1st and the Hawks trailing 14-5. Horford converted a 3-point play and Pachulia had a basket to draw the Hawks within 16-10 with 5:22 to play in the first quarter.
Jannero Pargo then replaced Kyle Korver and combined with Devin Harris (who checked in for Jeff Teague when Pachulia entered the game) to shoot 0-for-7 on jumpers as the Hawks failed to score the rest of the quarter. After Pachulia’s basket, the Celtics finished the quarter on a 13-0 run.
With the failure of the Hawks to establish an inside game in the first quarter, and the failure of Pargo and Harris to keep the game close with a steady stream of long jumpers, coach Larry Drew seemed desperate to find a shot maker in the 2nd. Teague heated up for 14 points in the quarter on a variety of shots after failing to attempt a shot in the 1st. Teague shot 5-for-5 in the quarter, including the team’s only 3-pointer.
While Teague was on fire, DeShawn Stevenson, John Jenkins, Smith, Korver, Pargo and Harris combined to shoot 0-for-11 on 3-pointers for the first half. Korver, the NBA’s leader in 3-point percentage, attempted only a single shot in the half.
Teague didn’t heat up until the second quarter, but I don’t understand the need to replace him less than six minutes into the game. Drew’s strategy was obviously to get the ball inside to Smith and Horford. Teague ran the plays and got the ball inside. The fact that there was a lid on the basket for Atlanta’s big men does not indicate that Teague was failing to do his job. And I doubt that a young player like Teague needed a rest after playing less than 6 minutes.
With Harris available but not in the starting lineup, it seemed the Hawks would have sufficient depth at point guard. Bringing in 3rd-string point guard Pargo so early seemed like a panic move by Drew. As I’ve noted previously, Pargo plays better against non-playoff teams. My immediate reaction to Pargo’s 6-for-11 debut for the Hawks against the Timberwolves was to declare it fool’s gold. We’ve seen in the past that Pargo can get hot against sub-par competition. Shooting 1-for-7 against the Celtics brought back painful memories of Pargo’s disastrous performance in the playoffs last May.
Meanwhile Johnson was -20 for the first half. Anyone who has read me knows what a point of emphasis I place on +/- numbers. However, Johnson’s 2nd career start was a textbook example of how individual +/- numbers can be misleading. During his first stint, Johnson accounted for 60% of the team’s offense while enduring the errant shooting of Smith and Horford. By the time he returned with 2:32 to play in the first, the ball was no longer going to the front court players as Harris and Pargo chucked away. As the second half showed, a better idea might have been to get Korver more than one shot attempt for the entire half.
The Hawks opened the second half with Johnson on the bench, Harris at shooting guard and Korver at small forward. When Harris finally hit his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer with 9:15 remaining in the 3rd, it felt like a turning point. The basket drew the Hawks within 59-47 and prompted Celtics coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout. From there, it was the Korver, Teague and Ivan Johnson show.
After a flurry of baskets by Teague and Korver tied the game, Johnson checked in with 2:40 to play in the 3rd. He promptly posted up Jared Sullinger and scored, calmly sank a 20-footer at the end of the shot clock, then beat Sullinger down court and converted a Josh Smith touchdown pass into a 3-point play.
Last February I declared that Johnson was “already a better NBA center than Kendrick Perkins.” The latter, who makes about $9 million per season on a contract with two years remaining, has started 44 games for the Thunder this season. In the interest of small sample size theater, I decided to compare Johnson’s first two career starts to the best two games Perkins has played this season. In the last two games, Johnson has averaged 11.5 points on 9-for-19 shooting (47%) and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes. In games Nov. 30th against Utah and Jan. 23rd against Golden State, Perkins averaged 12 points on 12-for-17 shooting (71%) with 6 rebounds in 32.5 minutes per game.
Obviously Johnson could up his totals if given Perkins’ minutes, while Perkins holds the advantage in shooting percentage. However, there’s not much to complain about with Johnson’s accuracy since he led the Hawks in shooting percentage last year and is second only to Horford this season. After his 12 point, 15 rebound performance against the Bobcats, Johnson told AJC beat writer Chris Vivlamore, “I need some more money.” I daresay he’s going to get it.