Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This Year's Nuggets?

This year’s surprise NBA playoff team? The Atlanta Hawks. Avoid the rush, jump on the bandwagon early…there’s plenty of room. After a slower start then last year’s NBA worst season, the locals were calling for Coach Mike Woodson’s head. A defensive coach, but his team wasn’t playing defense. His first hundred games ranked among the worst in league history for any such stretch. Team chemistry and leadership were questioned. The few veterans on one side of the lockeroom, the many rookies and second-year players on the other. Then a funny thing happened…they started winning. They beat the world champion Spurs, and they’ve won four of their last five. Main cogs Joe Johnson and Al Harrington started playing like main cogs. Others, like dunk champion Josh Smith and fellow 2004 number one pick Josh Childress, learned their roles, and their play flourished. Johnson, the $70 million dollar sharpshooter obtained from Phoenix for two number-one picks and first-round bust Boris Diaw, displayed frustration with the early losing. The experimental move to point guard didn’t last long. Johnson picked up his game and has taken charge of the team, averaging over 25 points-per-game in the last week, earning Eastern Conference Player-of-the-Week honors. Trade rumors have not deterred Harrington from remaining the veteran inside presence sorely needed by the team. He too stepped up his scoring, as well as averaging an amazing eight assists per game from his forward spot. In Sunday’s overtime victory over last year’s surprise team, the Denver Nuggets, Harrington followed a Tyronn Lue miss by sweeping into the lane for a one-handed putback jam. Diminutive point-guard Lue gave the Hawks a spark Sunday when he came off the bench and hit two quick three-pointers, before missing a lay-up. An owner of two championship rings from his years with the Lakers, Rue knows winning, a feeling the Hawks are experiencing more often these days. Josh Smith also played well, and Woodson let him play most of the overtime. He played hard at both ends of the court, not letting up as he did his rookie year. Smith had five fouls in addition to some alley-oops and other dunks worthy of highlight reels, but also added some nice drives and outside shots. Postgame he spoke how knowing his role allowed him to contribute more, as opposed to being a one-dimensional dunker last year. Only days ago Smith turned twenty, and as Woodson’s top project, has a tremendous upside, if he continues to work and progress. Against the Nuggets Childress provided a huge contribution off the bench, and got the big steal at the end of regulation to force the OT. Also in his second year, Childress’s four years at Stanford are reflected in the poise and steadiness with which he carries himself, contrasted sharply with Smith’s youthful unevenness. Throughout last year’s nightmare Childress learned the ropes, and this season he too has stepped up his level of play. After the season ended teacher Woodson continued classes, taking the two Joshes to the NBA finals, to show them what the goal is. This year’s draft picks will be needed for a playoff run, but neither the second overall pick, UNC 6th-man Marvin Williams, nor lefty sharpshooter Salim Stoudamire, have yet to make an impact. Williams has played tentatively when he has seen action. Stoudamire set records and led the nation in three-point shooting percentage last year in Arizona, but didn't play much Sunday. He came off the bench and immediately made a long three, but forced his second attempt and missed. Free agent big man Zaza Pachulia leads the team in rebounding and was a force inside against the Nuggets. Unfortunately many of his rebounds were off his own misses, as his shooting touch was terrible. While the Hawks could find themselves with the last playoff spot in the East, the lack of more inside power would doom Atlanta in the playoffs. Popular center Jason Collier suffered a fatal heart attack in the preseason, and will be missed in the paint. Typical of many Hawks games, they were in the game down to the wire. Except this time they didn’t waste possessions, and came back to tie the game. When it went to overtime I thought the Hawks might've blown their best chance, but they controlled the period. Denver was the one to blow opportunities, and Atlanta won 110 - 105. With all this young, explosive talent learning how to convert close losses into victories, combined with few dominant teams in the Eastern Conference, this could finally be the season Hawks fans have been waiting for. GAME NOTES…when a big white guy named John Edwards checked into the game, all I could think about was the VP candidate. Noticed both Mike Gearons sitting courtside, the father/son part of the Hawks/Thrashers ownership group. Junior was casually dressed. Thought nothing of it, until that evening I read the bit in the AJC, how he'd been wearing the same lucky outfit to every game. As the Nuggets were about to attempt a foul shot in the third quarter, a small child trotted down about a quarter of the front row seats, until Gearon Jr. reached out and grabbed him. The Hawks, or at least Sunday’s celebrity announcer Ryan Cameron (a local DJ), joined the unattractive parade of organizations de-emphasizing Christmas, calling what mascot dunker SkyHawk trampolined over a “holiday tree.” Ninety-nine percent in attendance were in the demographic that would call it a Christmas tree. To escape their losing ways, perhaps the Hawks should change their colors and logo. Predominantly always red, perhaps they should focus this year on wearing the yellow alternate unis. Not the most attractive in the world, but red has gotten them nowhere since the days of Dominique. Then next year the Hawks can follow this year’s NBA throwback trend, and bring back the Wilkins-era uni (worm by Josh Smith) in the dunk contest, if not the royal and lime of Maravich.

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