Preview and Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Darius Soriano —  February 14, 2012

Records: Lakers 16-12 (5th in West), Hawks 18-10 (4th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (15th in NBA), Hawks 104.0 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.0 (11th in NBA), Hawks 99.8 (7th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hawks: Jeff Teague, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia
Injuries: Lakers: none; Hawks: Al Horford (out for the season), Jason Collins (out)

The Lakers Coming in: First, the okay part: the Lakers are back home after a grueling 6 game road trip that saw them play .500 ball. Many expected them to play to that level and considering they could have won two of the three games they lost and lost two of the games they won, that record seems about right. It’s also fitting because at this point, this team is pretty much a .500 team that has the talent base (in its big three) to play a step above that. Hence, their current 16-12 record.

Now, the not so okay part: the Lakers seem to be grasping at straws while players are being a bit more vocal about either their individual roles or the prospects of adding (or subtracting) from the current roster, and thus implying the state of the team isn’t that strong. MWP has spoken out about his role and his playing time, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture or inspire thoughts of a harmonious relationship between himself and the head coach. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant has stated that bringing in Gilbert Arenas “can’t hurt” after the Lakers worked out the former all-star guard over the weekend. Neither of these stories are particularly damning, but both bring into question how this team is progressing and whether or not the belief still exists that the current group of players can compete at the level they’d all like. And while I understand fans have felt this way for sometime, it’s quite another thing for players to feel this way or for the front office to grab at players that no one else seemingly wants. (As an aside, I have more thoughts on Arenas that I’ll share another time).

All in all, the Lakers are in a tricky position now. The expectations coming into the season were to compete for a championship, but the moves made – the hiring of Brown, the conservative approach to free agency, the Odom trade – all speak to a more long-term approach. Time will tell if there are bigger moves made or if this group can find its stride, but right now there seems to be a lot of uncertainty amongst the people who need to be single-minded in their belief regarding this team. Ultimately, that’s not a positive.

The Hawks Coming in: While the 76ers are one of the surprise teams of the league, the Hawks don’t trail them too far for exceeding expecations. Coming into the season this team was considered a group that would likely slip in the standings, becoming a lower playoff seed that couldn’t do much damage. Instead, they’ve won 18 of their 28 games and have found a way to compete even after they lost their best player (Al Horford) to a torn pectoral muscle that will sideline him for the season. If you had the Hawks still being a top 4 seed in the East after Horford went down you can raise your hand, but understand no one believes you because no one thought this was possible.

The Hawks, though, are still playing well and it’s mostly on the backs of Joe Johnson (who made his 6th all-star game roster last week) and Josh Smith (who was again snubbed from the ASG). Johnson, though not living up to his contract, is still providing his steady production by creating shots for himself and his teammates and giving the Hawks a late game option to get a bucket in close games. Smith, meanwhile, has stepped up his game with Horford out by hitting the glass harder and stepping up his paint defense. He still confounds fans with his penchant for taking long two-point jumpers, but his work around the paint is still exceptional and his ability to finish at the rim in transition and the half court is of great value to his team.

When you add those two players to a solid Marvin Williams and an improving Jeff Teague, you have the makings of a solid team that competes every night by playing tough defense, taking care of the ball, and playing a team-centric game on offense. Their talent level may not make this a championship level team, but their style of play is a winning one.

Hawks Blogs: Check out Hoopinion, they do very good work covering this team.

Keys to game: The Hawks offer an intriguing match up because they have the types of parts that typically give the Lakers fits. Teague is a speedster PG that can push the pace and create off the dribble. Josh Smith is a rangy PF that will start possessions deep on the floor but use his athleticism to create shots at the rim (while also taking some deep jumpers). Joe Johnson is the type of power SG that can create shots all over the floor and must be paid attention to at all times. Defensively, they’ll bang you inside with Pachulia, with Smith coming over to clean up and block shots from the weak side. They also have no qualms about packing the lane and daring you to shoot from the outside, because their wings have good size and can cover enough ground to chase shooters, but can also rebound or cover the paint if need be.

This means the Lakers are up for a real challenge even if they have advantages in certain match ups when utilized correctly. On the surface, tonight should be about Pau Gasol going to work on Josh Smith in the post. Smith is a fantastic helper but his man-on-man D can leave something to be desired, especially when defending the post. I’d love to see Pau get some touches on the left block and for Kobe to run some P&Rs with Pau to get him the ball in space, where he can attack off the bounce or shoot his short jumper (or set up Bynum with the lob when the defense rotates).

I’d also like to see Bynum get going early, especially against a rugged defender in Pachulia. At the start of the game is when Bynum will have the most energy and should be able to beat Zaza up the floor to get early position on the block. If Bynum can force Pachulia to foul him, the only backup with real size is the newly signed Erick Dampier, and while he offers strength, he lacks quickness and athleticism at this advanced stage of his career.

Defensively, the Lakers will need to finish possessions with rebounds because the Hawks aren’t going to do them any favors by playing sloppy basketball. As has been their style for years, the Hawks are very good at taking care of the ball and running their sets to get decent looks. I’m assuming that MWP will start on Joe Johnson and we’ll see if he has the footspeed to match Joe on the perimeter when he works off the dribble. MWP has not been as steady on that side of the floor this year, but he typically gets up for the bigger match ups and tonight offers one of those in Johnson. As for Smith, Gasol will have his hands full but he should be able to keep him under wraps if he sags off and invites the long jumper. Even if Smith doesn’t take the bait by settling for the long two, Pau will at least have an angle on his drives to cut off penetration and contest shots when he does attack the paint.

The bigger issue will be containing Teague. As mentioned earlier he will attack the rim, and he’s good at changing ends quickly and taking advantage of poor transition defense. Toward the end of the Lakers road trip, they were quite poor in this area, and will need to be better tonight or Teague will race by them to create good shots for himself or teammates. Teague’s also a threat to turn the corner in the P&R so the Lakers bigs will need to hedge well to deny his driving lane and then recover to the paint to shut down passing angles.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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