After the Celtics pulled out an overtime win against the Hawks March 8th, ESPNBoston.com’s Chris Forsberg interviewed Jason Terry. Not known for his defense, Terry was assigned to guard Kyle Korver, the player who erupted for 27 points as Atlanta erased a 27-point deficit in the previous meeting, a 123-111 double overtime victory for the Hawks Jan. 25th.
“We take that very personally,” Terry said of Korver’s prior outburst after helping the Celtics limit Korver to three points on 1-for-5 shooting. “Again, our identity is defense first.”
When was the last time you heard a member of the Hawks talk about the team’s identity?
“I think we’re still trying to find what we’re about as a team, trying to find our identity,” Al Horford told Jon Cooper for an NBA.com piece at the midway-point of the season.
Thus, halfway through the 3rd season of Larry Drew’s tenure, in the 9th (and quite possibly final) season of the Josh Smith era, Horford said the Hawks were still trying to figure out who they are as a team. In a 5-on-5 for ESPN.com previewing that March 8th Hawks-Celtics match up, TrueHoop writer Jack Winter of WarriorsWorld.net had this to say:
These Hawks have confounded all season long and still lack a cemented identity on either end of the floor. That won’t change by spring time, so we won’t know what to make of them going into the postseason.
Allow me to say that, if Smith wants to be remembered as anything other than a guy who chucked a lot of mid-range shots and never made an All-Star team for the Hawks, and if Larry Drew hopes to continue coaching, this team had better start cementing some kind of identity. Because for Smith, Drew and these Hawks, if I may quote Apollo Creed from Rocky III:
After Friday’s bounce-back victory over Phoenix, the Hawks will play their next six games against teams either presently in playoff position or less than four games out of a playoff spot. It starts with tonight’s final contest of the season with the Nets, where a win would even the series 2-2. The Hawks have little chance of winning a tiebreak with Brooklyn, according to NBA.com’s tiebreak scenarios, since the Nets have a good chance of winning the Atlantic Division crown and hold a superior record against conference opponents.
But moving into a tie with Brooklyn should not be the ultimate goal for these Hawks. If the team wishes to exceed expectations and go into the playoffs having established an identity, it should set its sights on a 3rd-place finish in the East. Depending on the outcome of the Knicks’ afternoon visit to the Clippers, a win over Brooklyn would draw Atlanta within two or three games of 3rd-place New York. The latter are a team that could fall in the standings due to injuries to three current and former All-Stars, as I explored in a piece for Brooklyn’s Finest, the TrueHoop site for the Nets.
Finishing 2nd or 3rd in the East, aside from silencing critics and rallying the city around the team, would assure the Hawks of two important advantages: home court in the 1st round and the right to play someone other than the Heat if the team advances to the 2nd round. Sound overly ambitious? A team with an identity sets lofty goals and puts everything it has into obtaining them. After the recent 6-game road trip during which the team lost to the lowly Suns and lost to the Lakers by a point after Horford missed a wide-open dunk in the final two minutes, Drew had this to say per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore:
We finished 3-3 so for us that would be a good road trip.
Wait. What? Really? Teams with an identity do not refer to mediocrity as success. The last two seasons have been a tale of missed opportunities in the playoffs. If Drew wants to finish up his contract on a high note, he needs to expect more of himself and his team. This has been a roller coaster season for the Hawks, which started 20-10 only to lose eight of the next 10 games, then won six of seven to get back to 10 games over .500 only to lose six of the next seven. If the team wants to finish the regular season on a successful note — and by success I don’t mean .500 the rest of the way — a win over Brooklyn would be a good place to start.