For all the Atlanta Hawks’ reshuffling, and the excitement the likelihood of a younger, up-tempo offense that came with it, the question mark surrounding the team is on the defensive side of the ball.
During the first quarter of their preseason opener against the Miami Heat, that question got bigger as LeBron James scored eight relatively unchecked points in the first quarter, including three dunks in three minutes.
But while three of the Big Four – now including Ray Allen – of the Heat each played less than 30 minutes on the night, and with Dwyane Wade not playing at all, the Hawks managed to slow things down and find a rhythm as they beat the Heat 92-79. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra noticed the edge defensively.
“They’re coached well, that’s easy to see. Larry Drew does an excellent job getting this team to defend.”
The Hawks noticed a difference, too.
“We were a little rusty early on,” said forward Josh Smith following his 21-point performance. “After the first quarter, we tightened it up on the defensive end, got some stops, pushed the ball pretty good.”
It was the kind of game Hawks fans have desired following a very isolation-heavy offense that ran through Joe Johnson for the last seven seasons. The Hawks needed a complete team effort to manufacture points and slow down the potent Heat transition game, which will only improve with more time on the court.
“A lot of it is just implementing our whole system and being comfortable with it and not having to think about it but it’s your natural reaction,” Kyle Korver said. “Are we forcing high? Are we forcing low? What is our coverage going to be? I’m speaking for myself, I’m still thinking. That just takes reps. This is a different system. We have a lot of new guys, getting used to a lot of new faces. It’s just going to take some time.”
As the team gels, they’ll do less thinking and more playing, which should result in more fluid play.
“We want to get the guys some confidence to play defense by themselves, try to figure out what plays will work for us instead of always having to look for guidance,” Smith said. “We need to play in the flow and not always have to look to [Drew] when we are in a half-court set.”
With Devin Harris out with a knee injury, Jeff Teague saw most of the minutes at point guard, splitting time with newcomer Lou Williams. Drew described Teague’s play on the defensive end as “excellent.”
And while it was nice for the Hawks to get a win in their first game together, the Hawks defense may have to remain excellent to duplicate their playoff accomplishments under the old guard.