ATLANTA – With so much roster turnover in the offseason the Atlanta Hawks remained something of a mystery right up until game time of their season opener on Friday.
That’s when head coach Larry Drew finally unveiled his starting lineup, which featured Devin Harris at the shooting guard and Kyle Korver at the small forward to go with returning starters Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Relatively early in the opening quarter, Drew substituted DeShawn Stevenson for Korver with the intention of having Stevenson defend Houston’s James Harden, who debuted with 37 points with the Rockets on Wednesday following a blockbuster trade a few days earlier.
Yet after Harden lit up the Hawks for a career-high 45 in a 109-102 Rockets’ victory at Philips Arena, Atlanta remains very much a work in progress in terms of how all of the pieces will fit together – a sentiment that both Drew and players evoked on Friday.
Among the biggest struggles for the Hawks was rebounding, as the Rockets (2-0) dominated them, 58 to 36. Much of the damage was done by Houston center Omer Asik, who failed to record a point but registered 19 rebounds, including nine offensive.
In his opening remarks, Drew was very candid in what ailed the Hawks.
“We have some things we really need to focus in and work on,” he said. “There’s just areas of this game where I thought we weren’t very good, very polished, particularly on the boards. We didn’t do a good job on the boards and it wasn’t just our big guys. Our perimeters were not chasing down rebounds and, therefore, allowed them second opportunities.”
Horford finished with only five rebounds while giving up two inches to Asik. But the Hawks’ four guards totaled only nine rebounds. Jeremy Lin had 10 alone for Houston and Harden added seven more. Toney Douglas and Carlos Delfino combined for four more for a Rockets’ backcourt total of 21.
“We got to help Josh and Al out,” Stevenson said. “They’re going to the boards and we got to get back on the defensive end and I don’t think we did that good enough to help Josh and Al out.”
Drew also was unhappy about how the Hawks allowed easy baskets after they scored. Harden, who made 14-of-19 field goals, victimized them on long plays over the top in those cases – a play that Drew had warned the team about before the game.
“It’s still a progress, it’s still a progress,” said Smith, one of six Hawks in double figures with 18 points and the only Hawk with double digits in rebounds (10). “We’re still getting acclimated to other guys coming in and learning our defensive principles, just getting a feel for where they’ve got to be, where the spots they’ve got to be at.
“Like I said, it’s still a work in progress, we’re a new team, we have new faces, so we have to focus in on what we’re doing in practice and try to emulate it in games.”
As much as one game represents only a glimpse, one thing we might have learned is how Drew will employ his unusual trio of guards Teague, Harris and Lou Williams – all of whom are similar in size and whose skills are somewhat similar. On Friday, Drew said he opted to ride the hot hand when it came to playing time.
Rookies John Jenkins and Mike Scott did not play at all, nor did newcomer Anthony Morrow and hold-over Ivan Johnson, who has proven he can rebound. Korver finished with only 15 minutes and shot 0-for-3. Harris scored nine points in the first quarter and helped the Hawks to take an early 15-10 lead. But he did not score after the first quarter, missing his final five shots, and finished fourth among the four guards who played on Friday in minutes.
From there, Drew rode Williams, who finished with a game-high 22 points and helped to rally the Hawks in an ultimately unsuccessful comeback bid.
After yielding the lead, the Hawks trailed for the next 36:10 of the game until Smith’s running lay-up gave them an 88-87 lead with 7:12 left in regulation. Even though the Hawks scored 58 points in the second half, they could not overcome the rebounding disadvantage and Harden’s prolific scoring in the end.
So as much mystery as there was entering the game, there’s still a good bit left.
“We’re going to have to roll our sleeves up and just get better,” Drew said. “It’s not a situation of something we can’t fix. It’s just a matter of us making our minds up by pulling this thing together and seeing what we really are. We’re still trying to establish an identity.”
The process continues with a daunting task on Sunday at Oklahoma City, the defending Western Conference champion.