Running with Zaza

IconThis blog is devoted to the Atlanta Hawks, the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the global game of basketball.

Hawks vs. Bucks

Remember how you felt immediately after the final scene of the Sopranos went to black? Very hard to describe that feeling. You were kind of confused, but you kind of liked the ending because you could fill in the blanks of what happened. Then, you woke up the next morning and you were like, "What is David Chase doing, give me an ending." Give me an ending and I might take out the small loan to buy the 33 DVD set of the entire series. In short, you were frustrated, happy, or glad that Tony did not get whacked. That feeling is exactly what I felt watching the Hawks beat the Milwaukee Bucks tonight—glad the Hawks won the game, but ambivalent as to how they are playing--uninspired and a little worried.

I am watching an NBA game almost every night. I pretty much have stopped watching college basketball until conference play starts in January. The Hawks are my adopted team. Tonight, the Hawks won the game to go 5-1 at home, but they really played an uninspired, lackadaisical game. The Bucks starting line up tonight was as bad talent wise as you can get in the NBA. The Bucks started Richard Jefferson, Charlie Bell, Luke Ridnour, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Dan Gadzuric. Jefferson is legit. Bell is wearing the biggest knee brace I have ever seen in an NBA game. Ridnour is fun and hip, but not good. Moute is a role player at best. Gadzuric is so athletic he just hangs around the league collecting checks. The Bucks’ second best player tonight was Ramon Sessions, a point guard off the bench. He is better than Acie Law.

Really, the Hawks should kill this team. These guys were scrappy and played harder than the Hawks. Give the credit to Scott Skiles and his staff. They out prepared and out coached Mike Woodson and company tonight. For example, I actually saw assistant coach and NCAA pariah Kelvin Sampson coaching Richard Jefferson. The great part was that Jefferson was actually listening to Sampson! I should not complain because the Hawks are 9-5. That is better than most people predicted. Their schedule has been very tough so far, and they are missing Josh Smith. But, almost every other team also is dealing with injuries. Here are a few of my problems with the Hawks on the eve of Thanksgiving:

Hawks do not have the hustle type role player. The hustle player for the Hawks is Al “the Boss” Horford. Horford leads by example, but he is getting himself into foul trouble. The Bucks had any number of hustle players tonight. Acie, Solo, Mo Evans or someone has to match Horford’s effort. Right now, Horford is the Hawks’ most valuable player and emotional leader.

Mike Woodson has to use Joe Johnson more effectively on both ends of the court. Stop making Super Joe guard the other team’s best player. Look at Jefferson tonight—most of the time he was guarding the Hawks’ worst perimeter player. On the offensive end, if the Hawks’ have 80 possessions, 25 of those plays should be sets to get Joe the ball where he can score or create for someone else. The first possession after halftime the Hawks’ ran a great set play for Johnson, and he made a 3 point shot. You need to get Joe moving without the ball and not make him break his man down off the dribble all of the time.

Stop making Johnson bring the ball up the court against pressure and inititate the offense. Did Jefferson ever bring the ball up for the Bucks? No. Johnson should run down to the baseline and wait on people to set screens for him like a Richard Hamilton, Ray Allen, etc. Remember when Iverson played for Larry Brown in Philadelphia? They used to run sets for Iverson all night long. It is not like Joe Johnson will not pass the basketball. Really, the opposite is true and Johnson passes too much. Run some plays for him.

The Hawks have to figure out a way to get better play out of Zaza and Solomon Jones. The center position is where they are struggling. Gadzuric was awful tonight for the Bucks, but the Hawks could not take advantage. At the very least, these guys have to pound the offensive glass.

I am excited about the Hawks’ start to the season. Without Josh Smith one of their top players, they are winning games. But, there is something missing--maybe a killer instinct, maybe an overall attitude. The Hawks had so much more talent tonight than the Bucks, but they let Charlie Villanueva play like an all star in the 4th quarter. They have been off since Saturday, and they should have come out fired up to blow the Bucks out of Philips Arena. The Hawks need a “glue” guy--someone other than Horford that will chest bump Joe Johnson or Bibby and get these guys to show some emotion. Tonight, it did not seem like it hurt enough when the Bucks scored on the Hawks. In the NBA if you play to the level of your opponent and play the scoreboard, you will lose when you are supposed to win. You will end up 37-45 again and out of the playoffs. No one who was downtown in June last summer wants that for this season.


10 Things I Think About the Hawks' Weekend Split

1. Before talking about the Hawks’ two games, Vince Carter of the Nets deserves some press. I am not sure why, but his performance in the last minutes against the Toronto Raptors is not getting any attention. Carter was incredible in the last minutes and in overtime. ESPN only showed the game ending dunk and the long 3 point shot to send the game into overtime. Those two plays should be the best plays of the week. What most people did not see was that Carter basically took over the game with the Nets down double figures. He scored on almost every possession of the last minute of the game. Carter’s performance in the clutch was sensational—I wish more people were talking about it. The game somehow got lost in the shuffle.

2. What has happened to Flip Murray? Murray was playing great at the beginning of the season, but he has fallen off in the last few games. He might have been getting too much attention for the Hawks’ quick start. He looks like he is trying to score every time he touches the basketball. I like his offensive aggressiveness, but he needs to pass the ball sometimes. The Hawks do not need Flip to dribble the ball down in the half court set, take his man off the dribble, and shoot a contested shot. The emergence of Acie Law in the last week might give Coach Woodson a way to control Flip and get Acie some more minutes.

3. Super Joe Johnson is on the verge of becoming one of the top all around players in the NBA. He defends, scores, passes, etc. Joe does a little bit of everything. He is going to have to learn to score when facing the double team. Delonte West did a great job guarding him in the Cavs game. Joe looked tired against the Cavs. He did carry the load against the Bobcats, but the smaller, quicker West gave him trouble.

4. Believe it or not Al Horford keeps getting better every game. He is a better player on both ends of the court right now than Emeka Okafor. He is better than any of the Cavs interior players. Varejaeo might be more athletic, but he is not nearly as skilled on the offensive end. Horford drove from the foul line into the post and scored on Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. When Horford is healthy, he is the only guy that the Hawks can consistently go to on the post

5. What was Coach Larry Brown doing in the first half of the Hawks versus Bobcats game on Friday night? The Bobcats were off to a great start with Gerald Wallace flying around and scoring lay ups at will. On one play, Wallace grabbed a rebound and dribble coast to coast for a lay up without being contested by any Hawks’ players. Then, inexplicably, Wallace was out for an extended rest, and Brown played his entire roster in the first half. In the 2nd quarter, he had Matt Carroll, Sean May, and Adam Morrison in the game at the same time. Brown obviously was trying to prove a point to someone, but it cost the Bobcats.

6. If you went through every player in the NBA and ranked the players, Sean May and Adam Morrison would be at the very bottom. May looked terrible in the minutes that he played against the Hawks. He is totally out of game shape. I am pretty sure that he physically cannot get down into a defensive stance. I would take Solomon Jones and Othello Hunter over May right now. Morrison was unrecognizable. He has a new haircut and I had not idea who he was. He looks bigger and kind of like a poor man’s Brian Cardinal. That’s poor. On the few times he caught the ball on the offensive end, he did not even face the basket to try to score. You can start looking for personnel changes from the Bobcats—the typical Larry Brown makeover should start fairly soon.

7. The Hawks split the games this weekend. They beat the Bobcats on Friday and lost to the Cavs on Saturday. Marvin Williams and Mo Evans hit big shots against the Bobcats down the stretch to help win the game. One big concern for the Coach Woodson has to be the very slow starts to the games. The Hawks were down big after the first quarter in both games. Luckily, the Bobcats are not a very good team, and Larry Brown was messing around with his player rotation. Against the Cavs, the Hawks’ second unit played hard and made runs against the Cavs, but Lebron and company never let them get closer than 10 points in the second half. Without Josh Smith, the Hawks cannot beat any of the top 4 teams in the Eastern Conference.

8. Can Lebron James be stopped? The Cavs beat the Hawks on Saturday night, and Lebron almost had a triple double in the game. The incredible part of the game is that Lebron did not seem to be playing well or even interested in the game in the first half. He made some plays, but then in the second half, he took over the game. Sometimes, Lebron is so big physically that it makes everyone else on the court look overwhelmed. After Lebron was hit in the face in the 4th quarter, he came down the court and received the basketball on the wing. The Cavs cleared out and sent Big Z over to set a ball screen. With Mo Evans fighting over the screen, Lebron just shouldered him out of the way, thundered down the lane, and dunked on Evans and Solomon Jones about as hard as humanly possible to dunk the basketball. The dunk was fierce, ferocious, and insert your own adjective here.

9. Speaking of Lebron getting hit in the face, I have watched a ton of NBA games going back to the 1980’s, but I cannot remember seeing a play called that way by the officials. Acie Law drove the lane with authority, switched hands, and scored a right-handed lay up. The officials whistled a foul on one of the Cavaliers on the drive—count the basket and Acie goes to the foul line. However, on the play, Acie flailed with his left hand and hit Lebron right in the nose. The officials called a technical on Law for the blow. The Cavs shot a technical free throw and then Acie shot his free throw. The Cavs scorer must have been just as confused as I was, because they did not give the Hawks the 2 point basket until the next time down the court.

10. Cavaliers are a much improved team. The main improvement is the addition of Moe Williams in the back court. Williams can play either guard spot. He plays off Lebron very well and is ready to knock down open 3 point shots on drives to the basket. Anytime that the Hawks made a run, the Cavs threw the ball to Lebron and ran a screen and roll at the top of the floor. Lebron is such a great passer that he creates easy baskets for everyone. Add to that the Cavs unselfish, team mindset and you have a great recipe for success. Several times Lebron passed out of the double team and the Cavs rotated the basketball for wide open shots. Wally, Moe, and Boobie Gibson all can knock down open 3 point shots.


Quick Hits...Hawks Beat the Wizards

The Hawks just finished beating the Washington Wizards tonight in a close game at Philips Arena a.ka. the Highlight Factory. The outlook looked pretty bleak with the Wizards leading for large portions of the game and clinging to a 4 point lead with just under a minute to play. In the last minute, the Hawks came through with two huge 3-point shots and two solid defensive possessions. Tonight, the Hawks played like the veteran winning team and the Wizards self-destructed on their final possessions.

Joe Johnson made two great plays in the final minute. On a side-out, Johnson broke to the ball and scored on a quick shot off the inbounds pass. The Hawks stopped the Wizards. Down by one point, Johnson set a ball screen for Bibby. Bibby was on fire tonight going 12-22 for 25 points, but had struggled in the 4th quarter. The Wizards doubled the ball screen and Bibby was able to get the pass to Joe. A younger player might have forced the shot, but Johnson is one of the most unselfish all-star caliber players in the NBA. When the Wizards rotated on defense, Johnson took a dribble and hit Marvin Williams for an open 3-point shot. Williams nailed the jumper for the game-winning shot.

Here are some quick thoughts about the game:

1. Marvin Williams is playing very hard. What it's a contract year? Oh, that explains the 14 tough rebounds. Marvin is a solid player. I think he would be great as a 4 man coming off the bench to stretch the defense. He just seems to be a player without a natural position. I like it when he plays hard and he is proving that he is a clutch shooter.

2. Our man from Georgia (the country), Zaza Pachulia, rebounded like a man tonight. He is injured. The guys in the post game show said he barely can raise the left arm up, but he was diving on the floor and hustling. I liked early in the game when the Hawks ran a set play and Bibby hit Zaza for a lay up.

3. Anytime the camera cuts to the Hawks' bench and I see Speedy Claxton, I cringe. Claxton has made an egregious amount of money on this contract without any production. I need to break this down in a future post.

4. When Bibby does not have to contend with a scoring point guard, the Hawks have a great chance to win that night. I want to know why the Hawks cannot find one guy with personality in post game interviews. This town is starving for a NBA guy with personality to take it by storm.

5. I like Maurice Evans in the starting line up beside Joe Johnson. It is a more natural look for the line up. Please stop making Johnson guard the other team's best player for long stretches of game action.

*What is the story with Drew Gooden's beard? That is terrible. Three years ago the Bulls had some crazy rule where Ben Wallace could not wear a head band during games. Now, they are allowing this beard! The Blazers are killing the Bulls right now. Mike Breen just said that Vinny Del Negro is looking down his bench for answers...probably not going to find any on that bench--Tyrus Thomas, really?


Hawks vs. Pacers...Down Goes Horford

Hawks: Super Joe, Bibby, Williams, Horford, Pachulia
Pacers: M. Daniels, T.J. Ford, Granger, Troy Murphy, Nesterovic

If you just look at the rosters and the starters, the Hawks should have beaten the Pacers tonight. The pre-game was warm and fuzzy. Coach Mike Woodson was back in his native Indiana. The Hawks made shots in warm-ups, but the first play of the game was an omen of bad things to come. The Pacers won the tip and on their first possession T.J. Ford broke down Bibby off the dribble for a lay up. The defense never recovered. On the Hawks 2nd offensive possession, Joe Johnson ran the point and initiated the offensive set? Why? Bibby has to be able to handle the basketball against some pressure. Early in the game in transition, Horford ran hard, but he did not post up hard against Troy Murphy. It looked like Horford already was injured at this point, because Murphy should not be able to keep him off the block on the move.

The Indiana crowd was totally dead in first quarter, but the Pacers played hard and played with energy. Greg Foster came off the bench and gave them a spark. With 5 minutes left in the first quarter, Horford headed to the locker room—terrible news for Hawks’ fans. Losing Horford at the beginning of this week will be tough for the Hawks to overcome. Right before the buzzer, Foster, a 6’11 post player, hit an improbable 3 point shot to put the Pacers ahead 32-25 after one quarter. Foster has not hit a 3 pointer since the economy was running smoothly. Nothing was going right for the Hawks and the adversity showed in their lack of intensity.

Defensively, the Hawks’ were not executing. They could not contain dribble penetration. Their help side rotations were late. Even if the Pacers drove and missed shots, they rebounded and scored on second chance opportunities. A great example of the defensive breakdowns happened in the second quarter. The Hawks switched and Flip Murray was beaten on a back door cut for a lay up by Nesterovic of all people. On another typical poor play, Murphy just posted Marvin Williams right under the basket and scored easily.

Coach Woodson tried to adjust and play the match up zone, but immediately the Hawks gave up a 3 point basket, and then another. Here are three big problems for the Hawks. Joe Johnson had to guard Danny Granger. Johnson has to be able to concentrate more on the offensive end. Put Evans on Granger. Coach Woodson needs to play Evans and Johnson together more. Granger had 14 first half points. Secondly, the Hawks were killed in transition. When the Pacers rebounded the basketball, the Hawks’ players challenged the rebounder. That is a basketball cardinal sin. At one point in the first half, the Pacers had 30 points in the paint to only 6 for the Hawks. The Hawks were killed on screen-roll plays and hand-offs. The Bigs had to help too much, and then their men scored on the roll play. The Hawks were down 13 points at half, and the Pacers shot a blistering 63% from field.

In the 3rd quarter, nothing happened except that Coach Woodson finally played everyone on the bench when he put Acie Law into the game with under a minute to play. In the first part of the 4th quarter, Law keyed a 15-5 Hawks’ run with 7 points and 2 assists. Benching him might have made him mad enough to play better. Super Joe missed a huge open 3 point shot in transition off a shot fake. That shot would have closed the gap. The Hawks really needed that basket.

Here is a microcosm of what is wrong with the team right now. With 4 minutes left in the game and down by 11 points, Coach Woodson called a time-out. Out of the time-out, the shot the Hawks got was a Solomon Jones spinning hook shot with the shot clock running down. That shot probably was not what they talked about in the time-out. Then, Danny Granger finished this game for the Pacers. He had 34 points on 13-18 shooting—a monster game. Tonight, he was the best player on the floor. The final score was 113-96, and the Hawks’ losing streak continues.

*Offensively, Super Joe caught fire in the 2nd quarter. He carried the Hawks’ offense for most of the night. He not only made shots, but he also created shots for everyone else. Horford never came back into the game. He has a right ankle injury. Joe would have to score 40 plus for the Hawks to get a win right now.

*Dominique took the night off from his color commentary duties. Is he already bored and tired after 9 games? I would do these games for free, okay maybe per diem money and travel expenses. Steve “Snapper” Jones filled in pretty well. He used to be great on NBC when teamed with Bill Walton. “Snapper” was the voice of reason to Walton’s zany comments.

*Every basketball fan is a little sadder today, because of the passing away of coaching legend Pete Newell. Newell was a master teacher of post play, and he was an influential mentor to Coach Bob Knight.


Hawks vs. Nets - Complacency...Already?

Coaching staffs in the NBA watch more film than any other basketball coaches. They are going to find the opponent’s weaknesses and try to exploit them. Last night, New Jersey beat the Hawks and the Nets showed everyone the weaknesses in the Hawks’ roster. The Hawks played hard and shot great from 3 point range to make the game close. However, the Hawks’ defense missed the fire and determination that got them off to a 6-0 start. They are playing short-handed. It was a long week away from home and the Boston game was a heartbreaker, but New Jersey exposed some things that the Hawks and Coach Woodson need to improve.

The Hawks cannot stop an offensive minded point guard. In the 4th quarter, Woodson did not even try to use Bibby on Devin Harris. Flip Murray was put on Harris to try and slow him down. Murray is playing great, but there is a reason he is a career back up. Harris was better down the stretch. He made a couple of huge 3 point shots and he penetrated and dropped a dime to Brook Lopez for a dunk. Bibby has to be on the floor for his shooting and savvy, but Coach Woodson is going to have to figure out what to do against scoring point guards. Hard to play zone in the 4th quarter, but the Hawks might have to mix it in on possessions out of time out or one single possessions.

Al Horford is a power forward. He is not a center. When Horford had to guard Brook Lopez he was over matched. Zaza is a quality bench player, but he did not step up last night. The same was true of Solomon Jones. Lopez looks like a bonafide NBA player. He scored and he actually bothered shots around the rim. The problem for the Hawks is that this weakness does not get solved when Josh Smith returns. Playing Marvin Williams at the power forward spreads the floor on offense, but he cannot guard bigger or smaller players. Zaza and Solomon have to bring their best every night.

Who is Ryan Anderson? I had to go to the Nets web page and look this guy up. As far as an all around floor game, Anderson was second only to Joe Johnson in impacting the game. He was all over the floor. He rebounded, hit 3 point shots, drove and scored. He is a big time energy guy. The Hawks had no one playing like that last night. Hopefully, that is not a sign of a ‘we just have to show up and win’ attitude.

The Flip Murray and Mo Evans dynamic duo already has inspired nicknames in the media. Talk radio, sports writers, and Joe the plumber all have come up with there own take on the immediate impact these guys have made. Check out my posts from this summer and you will see that I was a huge fan of Rick Sund’s moves to sign these guys. But, is it possible the attention has already made the Hawks too overconfident.

Against New Jersey last night, Evans did not even score. He had some open looks, but he looked uncomfortable especially when the Nets played their 2-3 zone. He looked tired at the end of the week long road trip. Evans is noted for his defense, but not sure yet if Coach Woodson trusts him in one on one match ups in crunch time. Against the Celtics and against the Nets, Woodson had Joe Johnson guarding Pierce and Vince Carter in the final minutes. I think Evans can be a defensive stopper.

Listen, I am firmly on the Hawks bandwagon, but the margin of error is slim in the NBA. The Hawks have to play defense every night to have a chance to win. Excuses about travel or whatever will come back to haunt you. Tonight fans should be worried about one thing—Vince Carter. Carter has the kind of talent to show up tonight on a back to back and get 40 points. The Hawks should have beaten New Jersey last night, and I expect them to come out tonight and blow the Nets out of Philips Arena.


Hawks Lose Heartbreaker to Celtics

The NBA is where amazing happens. I just finished watching an incredible finish to the Hawks and Celtics game. Then, I caught the last few minutes of the Miami Heat game. Dwayne Wade had a monster dunk over Travis Outlaw and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Trail Blazers. The Blazers won behind a great game from rookie Rudy Fernandez and Steve Blake’s clutch 3 point shot in the final minute. If you are not watching the NBA, you are missing out on great basketball.

Here was the situation for the Hawks--Josh Smith injured. Zaza out with a bum shoulder. Al Horford in foul trouble. Joe Johnson is not quite into the flow of the game. But the Hawks are up 77-76 at the start of the 4th quarter? The Hawks were out-manned and everything was against them. Still, the team fought hard, played together, and should have won the game. Here are three quick observations:

1. Hawks have a much deeper bench than last year, but not good enough yet to compete at the highest level. Coach Woodson was trying just about any combination of post players, because foul trouble killed the Hawks. Solomon Jones was too thin in this game. Randolph Morris was not a factor. When Marvin Williams has to play a ton of minutes at the 4 spot and guard Garnett, Powe, and Glen Davis, the Hawks are going to be in trouble. Really missed Zaza tonight.

2. Joe Johnson had to run the point in crunch time. Why? He was bringing the ball up even when Bibby and Flip Murray were on the court. Acie Law is not the answer and Coach Woodson knows it, but the Hawks need Johnson coming off screens in an offensive set. If Joe has to bring the basketball up the court, the Hawks do not get into an offensive set until about 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Probably not going to work over the course of the season.

3. The other thing that almost made me jump through the TV set was the Hawks’ strategy of switching on side ball screens and hand offs between Pierce and Garnett. Coach Woodson you have to make the in-game adjustment. Switching gave the Celtics two different ways to attack. They either threw the ball to Garnett on the post with a guard on him or Pierce took the ball off the dribble with a post on him. With just 7 seconds left on a side out of bounds, the Hawks should have switched up their coverage of this play. Maybe double Pierce on the handoff and make someone else beat you, or play on the high side and fight through the handoff.

Here is my play-by-play from the final five minutes of the telecast:

Johnson has to play big in this quarter for the Hawks to win this game. Celtics are hurting the Hawks with second chance points. The Hawks have no inside game on the offensive end of the court, and they are taking too many jump shots off the dribble. Garnett has been out of this game for a long stretch. He should be rested. Ray Allen has missed two straight wide open 3 point shots. Mo Evans just tied the score 88-88.

Five minutes to go and here comes Garnett into a tie game. Out of the timeout great defense by the Hawks, but Garnett hits a long two. Next time down—again great defense by Atlanta, but Garnett gets the rebound and scores on an alley oop pass for a dunk. Time out Atlanta.

After the time out, the Hawks have Joe Johnson bringing the ball up the floor because Rondo is pressuring Bibby. Boston’s Rondo fouls Bibby on a long jump shot. Bibby pulls a veteran NBA move by kicking out his leg. The Hawks desperately need a defensive stop. Boston runs a two man game with Garnett and Pierce. Hawks switch on the screen and Joe Johnson ends up behind Garnett in the post. Foul and free throws.

Rondo hits a 2. Evans responds with a 3. Huge shot. Pierce scores an old fashioned 3 point play with the fans chanting MVP. 99-95 Boston with 97 seconds left. Horford offensive goal tending! Bibby steals the ball back and is fouled. After a tough drive, 2 free throws by Super Joe. 99-97. The Hawks have been switching on the side ball screen and giving Boston a mismatch with Garnett. Please stop switching.

What will the Hawks do on this play out of the time-out? Superb defensive possession for Hawks. Quick and hard double on Garnett on the catch in the post. Rondo fires up a terrible shot on the ball reversal. Joe ties up the score on one of his patented drives down the right side of the lane against Pierce. Johnson cleared some space by fading away from Pierce for his 28th point of the game. 99-99. Johnson fouls Pierce. Pierce so good at going to his left. Marvin Williams for 3…Good! Doc Rivers brought in Tony Allen to guard Joe Johnson and Johnson beat him baseline before dishing to Marvin. 102-101 Hawks. Pierce hand off from Garnett and Pierce nails the game winning jumper. Again the Hawks switched and Horford ends up on Pierce. Inbounds pass goes through Bibby’s hands and the Hawks lose by one point 103-102. Ugh.


Hawks versus Bulls...Childress where?

Hot off the press--the Hawks do not miss Josh Childress. I have only been able to watch parts of different Hawks games this year, but tonight I was able to watch the whole game. Two things really stood out to me. First, even though the Hawks did not have a great game from Joe Johnson (4-16 from the field); the team controlled the game from start to finish. The Bulls made a couple of small runs, but I never thought the Hawks were in danger of losing—did not even enter my mind. Al Horford totally dominated this game. If he consistently plays at this level, Horford will be an All-Star. Secondly, the Hawks have better players and a better head coach than the Bulls. Both teams were missing very important players in Josh Smith and Kirk Heinrich. The Hawks’ bench more than made up for J-Smooth’s absence. Solomon Jones played solid minutes, but Zaza played a great game. He scored a few baskets, dished out some great assists, and played aggressively on defense. Zaza had a few hard fouls to set the tone in the first half. Although the defensive nuances go unnoticed by the announcing crew, Zaza showed hard on screens, helped and recovered to his man, and rebounded. When you couple that with a very active Horford with five blocked shots by halftime, you understand why the Hawks still are undefeated.

With a bigger starting line up and Horford playing more minutes at his natural position, the Hawks can weather the storm of losing J-Smooth for couple of weeks. Do you think Smith would come off the bench? Just kidding. I am confident Smooth is geared up for a great season. Here are two points that are concerns. Mike Bibby will not fight over ball screens at the top of the floor. The Bulls could only take advantage of that when Ben Gordon was handling the ball, because Derrick Rose cannot shoot outside of the lane. Scoring point guards could give the Hawks problems. I did like when Coach Woodson went to the zone in the 2nd quarter with Bibby at the top of the key. Changing up the defense slowed down the Bulls fastbreak and dribble-drive attack. Bibby will make it up on the offensive end and he blitzed Chicago in the 4th quarter. Coach Woodson has to watch Bibby’s minutes though. In my mind, Flip Murray is the back up and Acie Law probably will not see much floor time against the better teams.

Believe it or not my other concern is that the Hawks might be getting over confident. They scored so easily against the Bulls that at times the Hawks were a little sloppy handling the ball and executing the offense. The core group of players are veterans and this should not be a problem. Plus, Horford acts like a veteran NBA warrior. You know he had to love just killing Joakim Noah.

The Hawks’ win sets up a huge game tomorrow night against the Celtics. You have to be excited about the way the Hawks are playing. The guys are passing the basketball to open teammates, moving without the ball, and finishing with dunks. Without Josh Smith, it will be tough to beat the Celtics, but I like some of the match-ups for the Hawks. If Super Joe Johnson has a big night the Hawks can win the game.

Dominique Wilkins just had his best analysis of the night. The Hawks’ players know their roles. The NBA is so competitive and teams are playing at a very high level early in the season. Wednesday night is going to be great. Hawks versus Celts and the Lakers are at the Hornets on a second game of a back to back. Check out the game in Boston tomorrow at 7:30 pm, and you might catch Hawks’ fever.


Thoughts on the NBA Eastern Conference

I really love the NBA, but this year is the most excited that I have been for the start of the season in a long time. Over the past few years, I have been transitioning from watching a nice mix of college and NBA basketball to mostly watching the NBA. When conference play starts at the college level, I go back and watch a mix of games. On a night in and night out basis, NBA players are bringing their top games. The competition between the top stars is fun to watch. I already broke down the Hawks in previous columns, but here are some thoughts on the two conferences.

Eastern Conference…5 things I already know a few days into the season...

1. Lebron James is the most exciting player in the NBA. No one else can physically do the things that King James does. The dunks that James had in the Cavaliers game versus Charlotte on Thursday were incredible. James plays with passion and energy every night. I like what the Cavaliers have done around him this year. Mo Williams gives them another guy that can score. It looks like Daniel Ewing is ready to be a factor. What will they get out of Ilgauskas? Other guys I like are J.J. Hickson, Aleksandr Pavlovic, and Anderson Varejao. Last year during his holdout, the Cavs missed Varejao and his hair. He is solid in the pick and roll and he plays defense. Plus, you do not have to run any plays for him. Varejao is a very valuable piece around Lebron. This team is a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. If James can take over games against the upper echelon teams on the defensive end and rebound better, the Cavs can get back to the NBA Finals.

2. Toronto’s front line is scary. Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Bosh are a dynamic duo. Bosh is still the man, but the great thing for Bosh is that O’Neal is a legitimate low post presence. O’Neal can run to the left block and set up shop. That allows Bosh to work on the perimeter in the high post area. When the offense runs through O’Neal, the key will be whether he will pass the basketball out of double teams for easy baskets. Jose Calderon is an underrated point guard. He can push the ball and walk it up and get the Raptors into set plays.

3. Dwayne Wade is healthy and the Heat are a very intriguing team. Last night, the Miami Heat flew up and down the court in their home opener. Dwayne Wade is in my favorite five NBA players. I have been a convert since his rookie year when the Heat made that playoff run with Wade, Stan Van Gundy, Lamar Odom and crew. Defensively, Wade is always in passing lanes and making plays. Offensively, his jump shot has improved and he looks like he is back to attacking the basket. The best part of his game is his unselfishness. He does not have to manipulate the basketball to make the team better. Michael Beasley is smaller than I thought, but he is very creative on the offensive end. He made a great move the other night to score with his right hand. He will score but can he stop anyone. There are two question marks for the Heat. The first is new head coach Erik Spoelstra. He is an NBA veteran and has respect, but the NBA often comes down to calls made in the last minutes of the game. What does Spoelstra bring to the table? My other concern would be how does Shawn Marion play as a potential free agent? The risk of injury has to be in his mind. Plus, he is again the 3rd name on this team. Marion is a force on the defensive end and can guard virtually anyone, but does he play hard enough for the Heat this year.

4. The Boston Celtics are better than last season! They blew out the Chicago Bulls last night without much trouble. When the camera kept cutting away to the Celtics’ bench in the 4th quarter, they looked more like a team than any NBA team in a long time. All the starters were still in to the game in a positive way. They were cheering for each other. Garnett is probably my favorite NBA player. He really is the heart and soul of the team. Pierce is their most important offensive player, but Garnett is the guy that keeps everyone in line. He is the guy the other guys do not want to let down. Sometimes, winning a championship leads to complacency and guys looking to make big money, but sometimes winning championships brings teams closer together and makes them an even better team. If they stay healthy, this team is going to be there at the very end of the season. Just think Hawks’ fans, if Bibby were healthy, the Hawks could have beaten this team!

5. The Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks are in under different types of media spotlight. Do not count out the Pistons. They have a great mix of veteran players and up and coming stars. The core group is still playing well and Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell are emerging stars. But, how will they react to really getting hardly any media attention? The Pistons are flying way under the radar. The Knicks on the other hand probably will not make the playoffs this year, but they are going to be in the media spotlight. Until the Knicks decide what to do with Marbury, they are going to have questions. Under new coach Mike D’Antoni they are going to be more competitive and win over 30 games, but can they get any value for Marbury? The Eddy Curry situation is murkier. Curry can probably help them in limited minutes, but does he even want to. I am wondering about this guy’s heart—in a literal and figurative sense. I would not be surprised to see Curry have to retire or something because of his heart. Until he proves to D’Antoni that he can run the floor, come out on the floor and set high screen and rolls, and rebound consistently, Curry will be seeing a ton of DNP Coach’s Decision.