ATLANTA – Last year the Atlanta Hawks went into the NBA playoffs minus All-Star center Al Horford for the first few games.
The Hawks are ahead of the game in that respect, as they travel to take on Indiana in Game 1 on Sunday, but their situation in terms of injuries remains less than ideal.
“We’re not as healthy as I want to be,” coach Larry Drew said. “We got some guys nicked up, banged up. We have some guys going through kind of a healing process but this is a time of year when everybody’ s like that.”
One of the reasons why the Hawks might have ended up as the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed and playing the Pacers was because of the care that Drew – and the players – had to exercise to make sure they were ready for the postseason. The Hawks, who finished just a game behind Chicago for the fifth seed, lost their last two games as they rested a number of key players.
Leading scorer Josh Smith sat out two of the Hawks’ final five games and played but 13 minutes (22 below his average) in the season’s next-to-last game. Horford, the team’s leading rebounder, missed half of the team’s final 10, although two of those were for a stomach illness.
Horford said he had his sore left shoulder checked out recently.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m as good as I can be at the end of a long season. I’m just excited, looking forward to getting on the floor….
I’ve just been dealing with (the shoulder). It’s just wear-and-tear. It’s such a long year but I’ll be fine.”
Health is an especially significant issue for the Hawks’ top two players, who both happen to be big men, in a series against a team like Indiana, which is big and plays a physical style. The Hawks don’t have any player who can match up physically with Indiana center Roy Hibbert — few teams do — who is 7-foot-2, 280 pounds. Starting forward David West goes 6-9, 250 and off the bench Tyler Hansbrough is listed at the same size.
In comparison, if the Hawks choose to start Johan Petro, who started eight games, he’s giving up two inches and 33 pounds to Hibbert. Horford weighs 250 but Smith is 25 pounds lighter.
That’s why Drew has emphasized the need for the Hawks to run, as much as the playoffs tend to devolve into half-court struggles. That puts the onus on guards Jeff Teague, a native of Indianapolis, and Devin Harris to push the tempo.
“We’re not going to slow the basketball down by any means,” Drew said. “We have to stay with what’s good for us and put the ball in both of those guys’ hands.”
Perhaps to emphasize that point, the team ran wind sprints at the conclusion of practice.
“Whatever they want us to do, we’ll try to do it to the best of our abilities,” said Smith, who seemed a bit confused as to the rationale for the sprints.
With the knowledge that the Hawks are going to get a physical series from the Pacers – and that they’ll be without arguably their toughest player in reserve center Zaza Pachulia, who underwent season-ending surgery on his Achilles’ tendon – Drew seems to want them to take on a tougher mindset. That is especially the case when it comes to how fouls are called. In the playoffs, the officials tend to call the game looser.
“I think we understand the mindset you have to have going into the playoffs,” Drew said. “We talk about it, we say we’re not going to let certain things on the court affect us yet we get out on the court and we do it. I just have to keep reminding these guys. We can’t go into this thing worrying about the whistle.
“We’ve got to the do the things we’ve been doing all season long. We’re a team that’s been able to respond to missed challenges. This isn’t anything different. It’s the playoffs. Focus in on the team. It’s about changes that they’re going to make, adjustments they make. We’ve got to go into this thing ‘free of mind,’ focus on our execution, focus on our things, playing our brand of basketball.”
That means forcing the tempo and running whenever they can. If injuries are present, Smith said adrenaline tends to take over at this time of the season.
“I’m feeling OK, I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’m ready to go. At this point in the season, no one’s really 100 percent healthy. When the postseason season is here, everything is thrown out the window and your adrenaline gets flowing and you’re not really focusing on the injuries.”