With a dented roster, a lineup to make even the most ardent NBA fan look sideways and the presumably lame-duck Josh Smith sitting out after a knee injury and, yes, another benching (sssssh), this didn’t figure to be a night the Hawks would juice season-ticket sales.
They were sliding (losing six of seven and 14 of 19 since a 20-10 start). They were facing the suddenly functioning Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers. They were starting their 23rd different lineup of the season, and probably the weakest. In the eyes of most: No. 30, No. 10, No. 4, No. 34 and Al Horford.
And with the worst of all backdrops, the Hawks won. Of course. They do this. Move aside “Miracle on Ice.”
The Hawks led by as many as 14 points in the first half, withstood a 20-point third quarter by Kobe Bryant, showed remarkable resilience with a depleted team and held on to defeat Los Angeles 96-92 at Philips Arena (which was half-filled with Lakers fans).
They’re not dead yet. They’re just … interesting.
The Hawks were missing guard Jeff Teague, who suffered a sprained ankle the night before in a 17-point loss at Miami. They were still missing Zaza Pachulia and Lou Williams. Surprisingly, they also were were missing Smith, who apparently sprained his knee.
We can’t say for certain how bad Smith’s knee injury was. Drew said he didn’t realize Smith couldn’t play until he got to the arena. But the coach acknowledged (kinda, sorta) that he had a problem with Smith the night before in Miami that extended beyond injury.
With 5:40 left in the third quarter at Miami, Smith missed a 20-foot jumper. He was pulled at the next timeout, six seconds later. At the time, the Hawks trailed by only seven points (63-56).
Smith spent the rest of the game on the bench.
When asked if the player was pulled for some reason other than injury, Drew laughed and responded, “That was just a coach’s decision. I’ll put it that way.”
Sometimes, what’s not said reveals as much as what is.
Drew said he did not put Smith back into the game in the fourth quarter because Miami had blown it open, and he knew the Hawks were playing the Lakers the next night. That part is certainly plausible.
Regardless of where the truth lies, the remaining upright portion of the Hawks’ roster showed remarkable resolve against the Lakers. That’s needed this time of season, as the Hawks have slid all the way to seventh in the Eastern Conference standings.
Holding this team together isn’t an easy task for Drew, but he says he’s not feeling pressure to turn things around.
“I just have to recognize, given what our schedule is, that there’s times I’m going to have to back off and allow them time to heal,” he said. “The last thing I want to do at this stage is run them into the ground.”
Drew has obvious detractors. He has since Day 1, when he was viewed as merely the thrifty option to replace Mike Woodson. But he has done a pretty good job in his two-plus seasons, and this season is in a thankless situation, coaching an undersized roster that has been stripped down by new general manager Danny Ferry for payroll purposes and is in the midst of being rebuilt. Add to that the season-ending knee injury to one of their best shooters, Williams, several other ailments to a roster that was thin to begin with, and the will-he-or-won’t-he-be-traded saga with Smith.
Even with the depressing backdrop, the Hawks found themselves leading the Lakers 54-43 at halftime. They shot over 52 percent (23-44). They committed only five first-half turnovers after totaling a season-high 24 in Miami. It’s the Hawks. They do things like this.
The Lakers played the first half in a fog. They didn’t defend well and began the game shooting 3-for-13. But Bryant woke up everybody in the second half. After a three-point first half, he poured in 20 in the third quarter. The Hawks led only 76-74 entering the fourth. Bryant’s three-pointer with 18 seconds remaining made the score 93-92. But that’s as close as L.A. got, as Bryant missed a few shots down the stretch.
Some things you just don’t see coming.