ATLANTA — Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew said he has witnessed the panic disappear from his players’ eyes.
In the past, if the Hawks began to lose a big lead, he could hear the negative talk in the huddle during a timeout. He could sense the nervous energy, as if waiting for something bad to happen.
Even though they have been a playoff team for five seasons running, the Hawks have tended to come up with incomprehensible performances on occasion.
One of the most notorious was on Jan. 21, 2011, when the Hawks lost at home 100-59 to New Orleans, a team that finished only two games better than Atlanta. In that game, the Hawks registered the franchise’s lowest point total since relocating to Atlanta in 1968.
Last season, those losses might have ranked fewer in number, but there were still some head-scratchers. On Feb. 18, they lost by 20 points at Portland to a team that finished 10 games below .500 and on April 15 they lost at home 102-86 to a Toronto team that finished 20 games below .500 – in a 66-game season, mind you. So when the Hawks blew a 21-point lead with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Wednesday against Detroit and found themselves trailing in the final seconds of regulation, it could have been another one of those losses for which the team has rendered itself infamous in recent years.
Yet instead of suffering a psychologically damaging loss, the Hawks pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.
Drew drew up an effective play in the final four seconds of regulation and Al Horford drove to the basket and got fouled. He made one free throw to send the game into overtime and, ultimately, the Hawks prevailed in double overtime 126-119 against a 9-22 Detroit team at Philips Arena.
On Thursday, the Hawks spoke of how that performance illustrates their evolution with a roster that general manager Danny Ferry overhauled in the offseason. At 17-9, they sit in third in the Eastern Conference only three games behind defending NBA champion Miami for the top spot.
“Now, I don’t see panic, I see urgency,” Drew said. “I think they recognize this is a time of urgency; therefore, we’re able to maintain our composure and still go out and do what we have to do. When you panic, you respond totally different.”
Drew said he thinks part of it is a natural maturation among players like Horford, in his sixth season, and Josh Smith, in his ninth (though Smith went ice cold shooting on Wednesday after the first half). Specifically, Drew mentioned the positives of new players like Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and Lou Williams.
Two of those players have abundant playoff experience. In 2010-11, Korver played in the conference finals for Chicago, which, incidentally, gutted out an impressive first-round series win over the Hawks. In that same season, Stevenson, a 12-year veteran, started 18 of 21 playoff games for Dallas, which won the NBA title.
One can only wonder what Drew left unsaid – perhaps how the Hawks have benefited from addition by subtraction via the trades of former starters Joe Johnson to Brooklyn and Marvin Williams to Utah.
“I think a lot of that comes from the make-up of our club,” Drew said of the change. “We’ve got guys who have been in that situation enough times who just say, ‘Guys, let’s regroup and let’s get this thing done.’”
Drew summed it up by adding, “That’s a big difference from the way it’s been in the past.”
Point guard Jeff Teague said he thinks the Hawks have only had one bad loss this season and that came against a Golden State team that ranks among the league’s most improved.
Horford agreed that Wednesday’s game was the kind that Hawks would have let slip away in the past.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “It would’ve been too much. But you never can tell. I think we showed some growth and being able to handle their run, even them taking the lead and us being able to still keep our composure. We’re down four in overtime with (1:40 left) and we got it together and just kind of kept pushing and just willed our way to win.”
Willing their way to victory – not exactly a phrase associated much with the Hawks of recent seasons. Horford said he would prefer it if the Hawks didn’t get into those situations at all, but he pointed out that in their previous game against a Chicago team that is better than Detroit, the Hawks were able to finish the Bulls in an impressive 92-75 win.
So, maybe, then, it’s a situation of taking baby steps.
“I guess you could say that,” Horford said. “Definitely take the win, as opposed to taking the loss and talking about all the bad things we did. We did some good things as well.”
Enough to win – which makes all the difference in the world.