The Hawks should provide answers to some important questions by the time they are done crossing the country to play six games in nine days.
Will All-Star guard Joe Johnson's knee issues become a long-term concern? Can Atlanta's bench depth hold up against the strain of tough opponents and the compressed schedule? Will general manager Rick Sund swing a deal before the March 15 trade deadline?
The Hawks (22-15) will confront all of those issues with hardly any time to savor Saturday's victory against Western Conference leader Oklahoma City, their third victory in four games.
The trip starts Tuesday with back-to-back games against two teams ahead of Atlanta in the East (Indiana and Miami) and continues with games against draft lottery teams Detroit and Sacramento. It concludes with another back-to-back set against quality West foes Denver and the Clippers.
The Hawks won't have their full complement of players for the trip. Johnson plans to take his time with the knee, All-Star center Al Horford (pectoral) is at least six weeks away from returning and a handful of key reserves are ailing.
“It will be a big challenge for us given whether we may or may not have Joe,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “It will be a big test for us. I'm anxious to see how we respond.”
Johnson, who sat out four of the last five games with left knee tendinitis, is likely to miss at least the first two games of the trip. He said the pain has mostly subsided but he still needs to strengthen his quadriceps.
Johnson said he came back too soon to play last week against Golden State.
“Right when it's feeling great, I don't want to jump straight back out there,” he said. “That's kind of what I did last time. I thought it was feeling great but then I got to running on it and it was different. I am going to really test it before I get out there.”
Johnson usually doesn't take such a long long view with his injuries and is reluctant to talk about them because he doesn't want to make excuses. The Hawks were surprised to discover he needed elbow surgery last season and he tried to play through his current knee troubles before finally shutting it down.
Johnson said he has no problem resting the knee now.
“We keep winning, it's not that hard,” he said. “I think you lose a game or two you tend to get anxious and want to get out there and help as much as possible. But we keep winning, [so] all I have got to do is take my time.”
Joining Johnson and Horford on the injured list are center Jason Collins (elbow), guard Willie Green (back) and swingmen Tracy McGrady (knee) and Jerry Stackhouse (ill).
Green participated in practice Monday after missing two games with back spasms.
“See how it feels tomorrow and go from there,” he said.
McGrady, who left the game Saturday, didn't speak to media Monday but told a Hawks spokesman the knee is “OK” and he's day-to-day. Drew said Stackhouse has a stomach virus and wouldn't fly with the team Monday, though he could re-join them in Indiana.
Collins, out since tearing a ligament in his left elbow Feb. 2, stayed behind in Atlanta and won't join the team on the trip.
The injuries have piled up for the Hawks but they've managed to stay in position for one of the eight East playoff spots. Johnson, forward Josh Smith and center Zaza Pachulia have been key to keeping the team afloat but Atlanta also has benefited from timely contributions from its collection of veteran reserves.
“That's what it's all about,” Green said. “You know what you are going to get from the starters pretty much game in and game out. Then when guys go down, other guys are ready to step in and step up. We have a veteran team this year. Guys understand how to play the game, how to score, how to play defense and, more importantly, how to win.”
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