Hawks manage without ‘go-to guy' Johnson but look for his return

Things just haven't felt the same for the Hawks without Joe Johnson.

Sure, they've won five of seven games with Johnson on the bench following elbow surgery last week. Atlanta's offense has generally kept humming and coach Larry Drew has managed to shuffle his lineup and get by without his four-time All-Star.

But consider that Johnson has been Atlanta's most accomplished player for going on six years and rarely has missed significant time with injuries. He's been their steady top dog for so long it's been disorienting for the team to be without Johnson for even a few days.

So when Johnson hoisted some jump shots at Hawks practice Monday for the first time since his Dec. 2 surgery, Drew said Johnson's teammates visibly perked up. It was not a sign of his imminent return and the team hasn't been in dire straits without him. But it signaled a sort of return to normalcy for the Hawks.

"It was good to see him out there," guard Jamal Crawford said. "It can only motivate us and be inspiring for us."

Johnson said the time off has given him a new perspective, too.

Johnson has typically been reluctant sit out games due to injury or even tell anyone about his aches and pains. The Hawks weren't aware of the seriousness of his elbow condition until the pain became too much for Johnson to ignore and he sought medical treatment.

Now Johnson says sitting out might end up being the best thing for both him and the team in the long run.

“This could be a blessing in disguise," he said. "It can help me feel better or give me a break and let the guys go out there and figure things out [without him]. Who knows? So far, so good.”

Johnson started his rehabilitation the day after arthroscopic surgery to remove a "loose body" from the elbow. He was able to lift weighs and take some mid-range jump shots Monday.

Johnson, who wore a protective sleeve on the elbow, said his first 10 or so attempts felt awkward, after a two-week break since his last shot.

“For the most part, it was pain-free,” he said.

The Hawks said Johnson would miss four to six weeks after the surgery. Both Johnson and the team said Monday that his quick return to shooting doesn't mean that timetable has been shortened.

After years of being the focus of the offense, Johnson has generally embraced Drew’s philosophy of sharing the ball. He leads the team in assists per game. Drew also noted that Johnson usually is the focus of defensive schemes, opening up the floor for his teammates.

In Drew's view, Johnson's shooting woes -- he is hitting 40.1 percent from the field and 24.6 percent on 3-pointers -- are the main reason for his slow start this season. If Johnson can improve his accuracy upon his return, then Atlanta’s offense should be enhanced.

"I do like the fact that we are less predictable [without Johnson] but I also know that with Joe in the lineup, he is a go-to guy," Drew said.

The Hawks, meanwhile, have used several go-to guys in Johnson's absence.

Crawford, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams have all led the team in scoring for at least one of the games without Johnson. Mike Bibby made two critical late baskets to lift the Hawks to a key victory at Orlando.

"Obviously when you lose your top gun, it's tough on guys," Crawford said. "But we've all pulled together, we've all sacrificed and stepped up for each other. We are playing for each other. When he comes back, it will only make us that much stronger."