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NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

Apr 29, 2012, 10:31 PM EDT

Josh Smith

After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  1. cakemixa - Apr 29, 2012 at 10:35 PM

    Hey buddy, the Hawks beat the Celtics, in case you didn’t notice.

  2. senorpapino - Apr 29, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    Atlanta seems to be at their best driving and getting in the lane. They were crushing Boston in transition at the beginning of the game. If they start settling for jump shots, they will be headed for another early playoff exit.

  3. bozosforall - Apr 29, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    Yet ANOTHER choke job by a Boston team CHOKE CITY

    • andyhr17 - Apr 30, 2012 at 8:20 AM

      How do you choke when you go down by 19 points? You really do have a Morris Claiborne IQ, don’t you?

      • bozosforall - Apr 30, 2012 at 10:44 AM

        They CHOKED because most in the media (and nearly every idiotic Celtics fan) really thought that the Celtics were the favorite. Try paying closer attention, idiot Boston fan.

        And as for Morris Claiborne, he will make more money than your ignorant ass could ever dream of.

    • jimeejohnson - Apr 30, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      1. I choked on Smell-A smog the last time I was there.

      2. You are the biggest bozo (LOSER) on these blogs.

      3. Only a pathetic chump would be so adversarial. The Boston/Los Angeles rivalry is great for sports, but the adversaries don’t have to hate unless they are stupid, insecure punks. See Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for an example of adversarial respect and sportsmanship.

      4. A lobotomy can save you! Hurry.

      5. I’m having a lobster roll with avocado to honor SoCal and New England. Here’s hoping for another Boston-Los Angeles Finals! Go Lakers/Go Celtics!

      • bozosforall - Apr 30, 2012 at 8:31 PM

        The only thing that you’ve choked on lately is your husband’s peter.

  4. keyshawn22 - Apr 29, 2012 at 11:27 PM

    Bozo the more you speak the more evident it is you know nothing about basketball…

    How exactly is a team coming from 19 down to 4 with less than a minute to go choking???

    Yes the Celtics lost because they let the Hawks get hot early and got a bad call at the end, but they did not CHOKE by any stretch. Lose yes, choke no.

    Pressure is on us now to win without Rondo next game, we do and were fine, if we dont its do or die in games 3 and 4….

    Missing Ray, Wilcox and Jeff Green right about now… Our bench sucks!!!

    • pglive21 - Apr 30, 2012 at 3:22 PM

      Not nearly as much as the Hawks are missing Al Horford and Zaza. If the Celtics had any sense they’d get more plays moving towards the basket because the Hawks are tiny and slow up front (Josh Smith the obvious exception.

  5. phillynac - Apr 29, 2012 at 11:55 PM

    Don’t act like the call at the end if the game is why the Celtics lost. It should have been at worst a no call but the celtics never had the enough of the ball to call a jump ball. And spare me with the injury talk when the Hawks lost arguably their best player and unarguably their most consistent player along with guy who was backing him up.

  6. md23rewlz - Apr 30, 2012 at 12:11 AM

    There were three series that I thought people (“people” being “authors of random articles I read”) were misjudging. The Miami/New York one (waaaaaay too many people inexplicably jumping on New York when Miami is a clearly better team), the Dallas/OKC one (I still think Dallas will lose that series, but given that the two teams tend to always play close, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Dallas at least pushed it to seven) and this Atlanta/Boston one. Boston is a good team, but it’s so easy to overlook Atlanta, and Boston comes in with their own set of issues. It just feels like a weird series. Of course, there’s always the chance that my thoughts have been colored by the fact that games in these series have already been played, but I’m relatively certain that I believed these things even before the playoffs started. Relatively certain.

  7. jumbossportsblog - Apr 30, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Reblogged this on jumbossportsblog.

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