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The Atlanta Hawks are notorious for being an unreliable basketball team. Despite having a pretty talented group, they never seem to bring their best effort in big games and the result has been numerous second round exits over the past few years and a ton of lateral progression. The Hawks did nothing to disprove this reputation when they lost to Boston on their home floor in game two of their current series even though the Celtics were missing both Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. And then in a must win game four on Boston’s home floor, they found themselves down 38 and playing Erick Dampier big minutes.
Based on the reputation this team has established over the past few seasons, their lack of a vocal leader and the egg they had just laid in Boston, pegging the Hawks for a season ending loss at home last night seemed like an extremely rational thing to do. But there was one player on the Hawks that wouldn’t let that happen. This player had missed almost all of the regular season and he wasn’t ready to go home after suiting up in just two playoff games. Al Horford rescued the Hawks last night. His play on both ends of the floor inspired a usually indifferent Atlanta home crowd and wouldn’t allow a group prone to folding to give up on the season just yet.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
Horford has always been one of the most underrated players in the league. He isn’t incredibly flashy and his numbers won’t pop out at you. What makes him so special is his ability to do everything at the center position. He’s a great scorer with a nice touch from the mid-range (he shot 53% from 16-23 feet last season) and a good set of moves from the low block, he’s a fantastic passer (he was fifth amongst centers that played 20 minutes per game last season in assist rate), he’s a good rebounder and he’s a very good defensive player. Again, his superficial numbers won’t pop out at you because of the talent around him, but if he was made the focal point of an offense he would easily be recognized as one of the five best centers in the league.
Last night Horford delivered a performance that was more of the same for him, but for a Hawks team that had sorely missed him all season long, it was the extra spark they needed to get back into this series. Horford scored 19 points (8-for-15 shooting), grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out three assists, blocked three shots and racked up three steals. Horford was huge down the stretch, too, scoring eight points in the fourth quarter and scoring the final four points of the game for Atlanta. Horford got the rim for a dunk with the game tied at 83 with two minutes left in the game and made a push shot from seven feet out over two Celtics to give the Hawks a four point advantage.
After Paul Pierce was left wide open for three with 50 seconds left in the game, the door was left open for the Celtics to take the lead. Their final possession came courtesy of a Josh Smith turnover on an inbounds pass as the Hawks tried to get the ball in to be fouled. Rajon Rondo picked up the steal and dribbled down the floor into a Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll. Horford switched the action and picked up Rondo, who has been taking big men off the dribble all season long. Horford stayed true on Rondo, though, bottling him up and forcing him to pass it out to Garnett with no time left on the clock.
That defensive possession was a perfect way to cap off the evening off the Hawks as Horford reminded everyone just how good he can be. The Hawks looked dead in the water when they got back to Atlanta facing a 3-1 deficit, but with their close win over the Boston last night combined with Horford’s return at what seems like full strength and Paul Pierce having trouble with his knee, the Hawks suddenly have some life left in their season again. They have two games left if they want to advance to the second round, one on Boston’s floor and one on their own, but with Horford in the line-up, I think that is entirely possible. I picked Boston to get to the NBA Finals before the playoffs began but Horford changes the Hawks so much for the better that it at least makes this next game interesting. If Pierce isn’t 100%, I think the Hawks have a shot at winning this thing.
Of course, just when you start to think that the Hawks are armed with enough pieces to accomplish something, they let you down. But just once, perhaps the presence of Horford, who seems like the closest thing to an emotional leader that the team has, can galvanize this extremely talented group and help them harness their extremely unique ability. The Hawks biggest problem in this series has been their offense late in games. Schematically, Horford’s intrusion into the line-up should alleviate a lot of those problems because of his tremendous play making skills and ability to space the floor at the center spot. Now we’ll have to see whether or not the Hawks will finally take what we all see on paper and make it reality.