If you are basketball fan there is just something great about watching an NBA game in person rather than on TV. So many more subtle things to notice. I was lucky enough to witness last night’s game against the Bobcats up close and personal. Also lucky for me that a Joe Johnson jump shot made my long ride home a lot more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been.
Phillips Arena didn’t start out with a playoff atmosphere but it sure did end there. It took nearly three and a half quarters for the team to prove to the fans that they were going to make a game of it. When the arena did spring to life though it was an outstanding atmosphere and was loud even if it was only about three quarters of the way full. It made me wonder what those first round games with Boston two seasons ago must have been like.
In his recap, Drew over at Peachtree Hoops compared this game to a college game. While he didn’t necessarily agree with the tactic I am going to say that it is a brilliant coaching move by Bobcats coach Larry Brown. I may not agree with Brown’s ideas of team management over the long haul but in a one game setting or in a playoff series then I can think of a lot worse options than having Larry Brown as a coach. You don’t typically see NBA teams pressure the ball for 94 feet the way the Bobcats do. That strategy is a lot more prominent in the college game. What Brown wanted to do last night was to make the Hawks secondary ball handler bring the ball up the court. For most of the first half Raymond Felton denied Bibby the ball and for much of the second half tried to deny Jamal Crawford the ball.
This strategy is two fold really. While it may not hurt the Hawks anytime Joe Johnson is on the floor because he is more than capable of getting the Hawks into their offense, there were those times that the Hawks forced the ball to Bibby or Crawford and then ended up with a short shot clock after having to work to get the ball up the court. This strategy became a lot more apparent for the stretch during the third quarter after Mike Woodson sat Joe Johnson down in favor of Mo Evans. Evans is not as adept at bringing the ball up the floor as Johnson is.
Mike Woodson came to the Hawks with a defensive reputation, but other than the switching screen concept hasn’t thrown any real gimmicks into play that are visible to the untrained eye. I don’t know if it was a result of the Bobcats pressuring us or Woodson wanting to throw a wrinkle at his former Mentor in Brown but he unleashed the defensive fury that is the Hawks second unit on the Bobcats in the second quarter. This is how I thought Jeff Teague could have been used all season. He mimicked Felton in denying the ball handler the ball the difference was the Hawks used the in-bounder’s defensive man to trap. The funny thing was it caught the Bobcats off guard. Many times the guy coming to trap was ZaZa Pachulia who at nearly seven feet tall is a formidable barrier in which to throw a pass over. While they may not always have led to a steal, but many times it made the Bobcats work just to get the ball across half court before the eight second count thus giving them a very short shot clock to get into their offense.
The second wrinkle I saw Coach Woodson employ was trapping the screen roll in certain situations. During the second quarter anytime Theo Ratliff or Tyrus Thomas was involved in a pick and roll the Hawks trapped the ball handler aggressively. The thinking here was that they knew that if the ball handler was able to get the pass off to the player rolling that it would result in a less than desirable jump shot for the Bobcats. (Ratliff, Thomas = J. Smith shooting Jumpers) This is the kind of forward thinking that I like to see from coaches. I even saw a slightly extended 2-2-1 press from the Hawks with the starters on the floor in the third quarter. Most NBA teams are not going to tire their starters out by having them over extended on defense but I don’t know why teams don’t employ the strategy with their second team more. This is something that I hope Coach Woodson goes back to just to add a wrinkle especially on a night when his team is having a hard time getting things going.
For the latter part of the fourth quarter, Coach Woodson substituted defense for offense by inserting Mario West in for Jamal Crawford to guard Stephen Jackson. Still coming out of timeouts Larry Brown was able to run a ball screen and get whatever match up he wanted, which usually resulted in Al Horford or Josh Smith trying to guard Raymond Felton. To Horford’s credit he did a good job a couple of times down the stretch in defending Felton who up to that point had burned the Hawks. On the play where Felton scored to put the Bobcats up one before JJ’s game winner Josh Smith was in great defensive position. Felton probably would have had a tougher time on that shot had Smith saw the need to maybe put a hand up to contest the shot.
Which brings me to Josh Smith. Please Josh whatever is going on with you get it fixed. The fact that you can have a stat line of 18 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals with only being mildly interested in the game speaks volumes to your talent. I am not going to turn this into a bash Josh Smith the way I used to would have as Josh is a big reason for the Hawks success this season. However, things like crying to the officials don’t help you get calls later in the game. Him sitting about 15 feet away on the scorers table while the other players are huddled around Coach Woodson listening to instructions doesn’t project the greatest picture of himself either. It was apparent to me that Josh could have dominated Boris Diaw from the high post anytime he was given the opportunity. Larry Brown did everything he could to take that away. Still that is no excuse for Josh to become disinterested in what the team is doing. To his credit he kept the Hawks in it with an active third quarter and one huge dunk over the top of Theo Ratliff. I am just ready to see a lot more of the good Josh than the bad Josh heading into the playoffs.
Marvin Williams deserves mention for being active with 12 points and 14 rebounds. Al Horford had a double double as well with 13 points and 11 rebounds giving the Hawks three players to post double doubles on the night. Joe Johnson struggled throughout most of the night which prompted Coach Woodson to pull him out of the game midway through the third period. He did however come up big when it mattered the most. After going 0-9 from the field in the first three quarters, Joe rebounded to go 7-12 for 16 points in the fourth and overtime. Including the game winner as time expired.
I came away impressed with the Bobcats in this game. They are not as talented offensively as the Hawks are but what makes them successful is the fact that they defend for the full forty eight minutes. They contest everything. Conversely the Hawks defended with the same intensity for a spurt in the second quarter, and pretty much throughout the fourth and overtime periods. The Bobcats are not a team that will be just a push over for whomever they draw in the first round of the playoffs. I could see them causing all kinds of problems for either the Hawks or the Celtics. To the Hawks credit they found a way to pull out a victory at home.