Running with Zaza

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Magic Mystify Hawks, 106-102

I know, I know, you probably are not supposed to surf the internet at work, but during a quick break in the action today, I checked out The lead story was about the great match-ups in tonight’s action, and the main focus was the Hawks’ game against the first place Magic.

Hawks’ fans are starting to believe the hype. Philips Arena (a.k.a the Highlight Factory) was loud at the start of the game, but the Hawks quickly fell behind the Magic. Slow starts to games have been a trend for the Hawks all season. The Magic played last night, but the Hawks looked like the team playing back-to-back games. They were out of rhythm on offense and they were slow to react on the defensive end of the floor.

The slow start to tonight’s game had to be a result of the game plan. I have a vision of Coach Woodson in his pre-game points of emphasis talking about how you have to control the tempo to beat the Magic. The problem is the Hawks are a below average half court offensive team. Their half court offense is very easy to guard for opposing teams. The offensive sets are unimaginative and predictable.

You can see this in the way they often struggle to score in the final possessions of a close game. Giving the basketball to Joe Johnson at the top of the floor only works so many times. It is true that the Magic are more athletic, play faster, and love the up tempo game, but the Hawks have to play to their strengths.

Dwight Howard controlled the paint and the Magic did not have to double team Horford in the post (the Magic did double Joe Johnson a couple of times.) That means that Super Joe, Bibby, and Marvin Williams did not have their normal open looks from 3-point range. When the Hawks were down by 20 at the beginning of the 4th quarter, they started pushing the ball in transition. Even though they lost the game, pushing the ball fueled their comeback run.

Here are five quick observations about tonight’s game:

1. The Hawks free throw shooting woes have to be a concern for Coach Mike Woodson. They threw away the “Vince Carter buzzer beater game” with an abysmal showing from the line. Tonight, the Hawks missed their first three free throws of the game and ended up shooting around 50% from the line. In a four point game, those easy points are critical. Also, when the Hawks play a team above them in the standings, they have to make every possession count.

2. Dwight Howard is the most dominant, physical force in the NBA. Al “the Boss” Horford fought Howard all night long, but he is just not big or strong enough. Whenever Howard goes to the foul line, you can hear the whispers from the crowd and the television audience about how broad his shoulders are. He really does look like a Superman.

3. The Hawks really missed the presence of Zaza Pachulia. Zaza missed the game with the flu. He has a big body to lean on Howard. The drop off to the other post reserves, Solomon Jones and Randolph Morris, is steep. Jones hits the offensive boards hard, but he was totally over matched by Howard inside. You somehow have to push Howard off the low block and make him used a post move to score. Howard’s dunking and rebounding killed the Hawks.

4. I was surprised that in the last two minutes of the game, Stan Van Gundy called set plays for Rashad Lewis to post up Josh Smith on the left wing area. That must be a result of Howard’s struggles at the free throw line. Lewis converted a basket and made two foul shots, but Smith was able to stop him on the next two possessions. Smith started a fast break that ended in a heart breaking missed lay up from Bibby.

5. Can the Hawks handle their early season success? The Hawks’ emergence in the East is shaping up to be one of the best stories in the NBA. However, the Hawks are showing some chinks in their armor. Their shot selection has been questionable. Outside of Horford, hustle plays are non-existent. Watch the Hawks’ time-outs. Guys are not in the huddle listening to Coach Woodson or each other. The focus has to be on winning games and not who gets the credit.

Tonight, the Magic looked like the deeper and better team. They even managed a couple of baskets from J.J. Reddick! However, the great thing about college and pro basketball is that you have the chance to play again soon and make up for a bad performance. To beat the elite teams, the Hawks have to come together as a team. They have to use this loss as motivation for another big game against the Magic on Friday night.


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