Larry Drew knew his team was ready during shootaround that morning. The always inconsistent Hawks were loud and rowdy, champing at the bit to get onto the floor and start the playoffs. The Hawks have faced bitter disappointment after bitter disappointment in the last three postseasons.
None may have been more disappointing than a four-game sweep at the hands of the Magic in the 2010 semifinals. Orlando swept Atlanta by the largest margin in league history, winning the four games by a combined 101 points.
The Hawks were embarassed and stewed on that defeat throughout the season.
No one could quite get a handle on Atlanta this season. The Hawks, a team full of talented, young players could not get everything together. By every measure — pythagorean wins, efficiency differential — the Hawks should not be as good as they are. They certainly should not be able to be such a thorn for a Magic team that features the third best defense in the league by defensive efficiency and Dwight Howard anchoring a 3-point attack.
Atlanta thought otherwise. While just about everyone — minus J.E. Skeets of The Basketball Jones and a select few others — counted the Hawks out from the beginning, the Hawks came into the Amway Center with a quiet confidence.
Al Horford might have said they left the demons of the second round defeat in 2010 behind them in an early December victory over the Magic at Amway Center. They may have further left it behind in controlling Dwight Howard and winning three of the four games in the regular season.
It is safe to say, any thought of 2010 is gone after the Hawks came into Amway Center and flat-out dominated the Magic in a 103-93 win in Game One. Atlanta took a lot of pride in being the first team to win a playoff game at Amway Center and sent Orlando into a self-reflective spiral.
Joe Johnson best exemplifies this dramatic transformation.
Johnson averaged 12.8 points per game and shot a 32.5 percent effective field goal percentage in last year’s series. He was stymied completely as the Hawks leading scorer could not get going. People then got confused when Johnson signed the largest contract of the summer, cementing himself for the long-term future as Atlanta’s star player.
He then followed it up with his worst scoring year since coming to Atlanta, averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 44.3 percent from the floor.
If one game is any sign though, Johnson should be in for a big series. Johnson scored 25 points, shooting 9 for 16 from the floor in Atlanta’s Game One victory, a very far cry from last year’s debacle. Johnson was able to get wherever he wanted on the floor, post up the smaller defenders in Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick and pull up and hit jumpers.
Johnson, like the rest of the Hawks, simply had their way. And the aggression was infectious.
Atlanta showed a lot of poise in sticking with its game plan and weathering every attack Orlando put forth in Game One. Every time the Hawks needed a jumper, they found one. Whether it was Josh Smith answering Jameer Nelson‘s three early in the third quarter with a three of his own, or the Hawks turning a late turnover into a Jamal Crawford transition three, the Hawks had the answers.
But you could see the quiet confidence slowly come pouring out. Every big shot was followed by a bench that was into the game and urging their teammates on. Meanwhile, the Magic bench sulked and looked for answers.
The question will become whether Orlando can answer the bell in Game Two and whether Atlanta can continue its dominance.
Statistics suggest the Hawks will come down from the 51.4 percent field goal percentage they shot in Game One (Stan Van Gundy had them at 58 percent through three quarters). But if the Magic play the defense the way they did in Game One and the Hawks play as agressively, they very well could become the Magic’s nightmare and turn the tables in this division rivalry.