Testy 17-game run awaits Hawks

When the Hawks wooed Joe Smith over the summer, they didn't beat around the bush about why they coveted him.

The team's brass thought Smith could give them the depth and leadership they needed to compete with Eastern Conference bullies Boston, Cleveland and Orlando.

"That was probably one of the most talked-about things when I came out here for my so-called recruiting visit," Smith said Monday. "That was something that [coach Mike Woodson] talked about, [general manager] Rick Sund talked about. I talked to Dominique Wilkins. Dominique talked about it."

Starting Tuesday night with the front of a back-to-back with Cleveland, the Hawks can measure their growth and assess the investments made in offseason acquisitions Smith, guard Jamal Crawford and center Jason Collins.

"It's going to be good," guard Mike Bibby said. "We're going to be able to tell where we stand."

The Hawks play the Central Division-leading Cavaliers on Tuesday at Philips Arena, then again Wednesday in Cleveland. Before January ends, the Hawks will twice play Boston and Orlando on back-to-back nights. The first Boston-Orlando set will be followed by another Celtics game two days later.

Through the end of January, 12 of the Hawks' next 17 games are against teams that were above .500 before Monday's games. While 10 of the games are at Philips, seven of the 12 against the over-.500 teams are on the road. At 21-8, the Hawks have the fifth-best record in the league and have won eight of their last 10.

Said forward Josh Smith, "It's probably going to be the toughest month I've ever faced as an NBA player."

Before Monday's games, the Hawks ran fourth in the Eastern Conference, two games behind first-place Boston and a half-game behind Orlando in the Southeast Division.

"We've got some of the top teams in the East, home and on the road coming up," Joe Smith said. "In order for us to prove we're one of those top teams, we're going to have to go out and win these games."

In November, the Hawks beat Boston on the road after losing their last nine games there, including the playoffs, but dropped a Thanksgiving night game to Orlando despite leading by 12 points at halftime. Overall, the Hawks are 8-3 against teams above .500. Last week, Denver coach George Karl predicted that the Hawks will pass one of the East's big three this season.

"We just have another year under our belt," Josh Smith said. "We have more depth on this team, more experience. I think it's going to be a hard-fought game [Tuesday]. We really need to win this game at home and try to go up there and try to steal one in Cleveland."

The Hawks will have to have an answer not only for superstar LeBron James, but for Cleveland's size.

Part of the reason the Hawks went after Joe Smith and Collins in the offseason was that Cleveland exposed their lack of big man depth in sweeping them 4-0 in the second round of the playoffs. The addition of Shaquille O'Neal gives Cleveland three players 6-feet-11 or taller who play regular minutes.

Said Woodson, "We've got to see what we're made of."

Playing Cleveland back-to-back will perhaps give the Hawks more opportunity to examine weaknesses.

When playing teams consecutively, "you're still pretty familiar with what they want to do," Joe Smith said. "Between games, of course, adjustments are going to be made, kind of like a mini-playoff series. You don't have two or three games in between where you kind of lose focus on what they want to do. You're right back at it the next night."

The Hawks enter the gantlet after a relatively light December. Of their first 12 games this month, nine were against teams under .500. They went 9-3.

It's about to get a little more turbulent.

"It's going to be definitely challenging, but you can't stray away from it," Josh Smith said. "This is where you want to go out and put your hard hat on and be ready to play."