The Hawks obviously have ambitions beyond the second round of the playoffs, but they have a Dwight Howard Problem. They can’t guard him.
The Orlando center scored 31 points and had 19 rebounds in a 104-86 victory against Atlanta last week and Rashard Lewis, the Magic’s swingman, pushed a needle in the Hawks.
“They don’t have anybody who can guard Dwight inside,” Lewis told the Orlando Sentinel.
It was a taunt that could resonate throughout the rest of the season. The Hawks, no matter how good they may become, face a wall they cannot climb.
So do the Hawks have a short future in April?
Mike Woodson, whose team entertains Chicago Friday night, has more than 20 years of NBA experience as a player and coach and helped craft the stingy defense the Pistons used to win an NBA title in 2004. Experience tells him not to spin the dial ahead. If others want to ponder the possibilities of the Dwight Howard Problem, leave Woodson out of it, at least for now.
“We have one game left with them and hopefully by the time we play them, we would have figured something out with Howard,” Woodson said. “The regular season -- and Lewis should know this -- is totally different than when you get in a playoff round. Until we get to that point, it’s not important to me. We still have to worry about all these other teams we have left on the schedule.”
On searching for a remedy for one guy, Woodson said, “It’s too early for that. As the season wears down you can start thinking about that. It ain’t like we don’t work on [post defense] and teach it. Sometimes it takes a little more effort; sometimes if you double, the guy that is doubling has to get there quicker.”
History suggests the Hawks better come up with something. Since Howard entered the league straight out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy in 2004, the Magic have lost just one season series against Atlanta (2006-07) and have beaten the Hawks 14 times in 23 meetings. Orlando, which next faces the Hawks March 24, has won six straight against Atlanta and those wins have generally been blow-outs, the average margin of victory 18.5 points.
If anything, Howard has played better against the Hawks as the Hawks have improved. He averaged 16.6 points against his old hometown team during his first four seasons in the league but averaged 20.5 points against them last year and 21.7 points this year.
Perhaps Wednesday night’s game with the Clippers was a glimpse of what the Hawks have to do with a productive big man. They played games with L.A.’s Chris Kaman, a 7-footer with skills, by running a double team at him on some possessions and then bluffing on many others.
Kaman is a different player than Howard, but when he put his back to the basket and tried to use muscle, Al Horford had a sturdy arm bar up and forced Kaman (7-of-21) to take fadeaway jumpers. Atlanta won, 103-97.
“Al is strong. He did a good job behind me,” Kaman said. “One thing I noticed that might help them is sometimes Josh Smith will leak early to the offensive end. Maybe he can stay a little longer on the defensive end. The other thing is, one-on-one, Dwight Howard is a monster.”
Joe Smith, the Hawks reserve big man who has been in the league 15 seasons, says Howard reminds him of the All-Star forward Shawn Kemp, an explosive finisher who, Smith said, was more polished offensively with his back to the basket than Howard.
“You don’t want to give guys like them one straight dose of a double-team. You have to keep them off guard for when you decide to trap,” Smith said. “It’s not a one-man task. You have to keep him out of the paint and recover to the 3-point line. It’s not easy, but we’re not the only team that has the problem.”