ATLANTA — Still perspiring under a Chicago White Sox hat and looking sluggish after a West Coast swing and subsequent clash against Orlando, Josh Smith wasn’t buying.
When asked if his team’s defensive effort against the Magic (3-7) — an 81-72 Hawks win, the first time Atlanta has held an opponent under 86 points this season — was the best of the young season, the 6-foot-9 forward balked. “You tell me, you tell me,” he said. In fact, no Hawks player or coach interviewed postgame was willing to take that leap of confidence, despite the impressive numbers.
“We looked pretty good (defensively), we looked pretty good,” Smith said. “We’ve been better. We can be better. But we’re still gelling as a team as well.”
For a team not expected to find itself in many low-80s games this season — after all, this smaller roster was supposedly built more toward an up-tempo, back-and-forth style of play — the Magic’s offensive woes Monday night in Philips Arena must feel, to some, like an outlier.
But that’s not exactly the way things have panned out this season. In terms of efficiency, the Hawks ranked 16th offensively (100.4) and 11th defensively entering Monday night. And after shooting just 38.2 percent from the field yet holding Orlando to an even more embarrassing mark (37.8), that gap will only widen. Still, holding an NBA team — even one as out-of-sorts as Orlando — to 72 points is a commendable feat.
Coach Larry Drew said his team is capable of being even better.
“I’ve seen us defend in stretches a lot better,” said the third-year headman. “We’re a team that, you know, we can defend. We have a lot of defensive schemes. We kinda pick our poisons for us how we want to defend certain people, certain situations.”
The Hawks’ success this season, as Drew stated multiple times throughout the preseason, has hinged upon its success defensively. In their five wins, opponents are shooting 41.9 percent from the field. In the four losses: 45.8.
That was precisely the case against Orlando.
After the Magic jumped out to a 23-21 first-quarter lead — Atlanta’s four-game West Coast swing last week played a factor in the energy level, Drew and the players said — the home team locked down. Orlando scored just 26 points in the second and third quarters combined. Its shooting percentage, in consecutive quarters, plummeted from 50 percent to 30 to 27.3, respectively. By the time Drew inserted his team’s two rookies, John Jenkins and Mike Scott, the Magic were just 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth.
Orlando’s two leading scorers, guards J.J. Redick and Arron Afflalo, combined for just eight points (4-of-17) after both entered Monday night averaging more than 15 points per game apiece.
“We tried to make it a priority to really defend the 3, particularly with Redick. He’s one of the top 3-point shooters in the league. I tell ya, every shot he takes looks like it’s going in,” Drew said. “But I made it a point as far as our game plan, our game strategy, to make sure that we contested all shots at the 3-point line.”
The Magic made just two 3-pointers on the night.
Of course, when Smith bypassed comment on whether it was his team’s top defensive performance, he was making a not-so-subtle point. Orlando is one of the worst offensive teams in the league, scoring just 96.3 points per 100 possessions. Smith’s general point: Three of the Hawks’ four wins have come against teams ranked among the 10 worst teams in terms of offensive efficiency. Shutting down the Orlandos and Sacramentos will only take this team so far.
It’s far easier to win a defensive grinder against the Magic than it is some of the other East powers.
So, when reminded that his team just held an opponent in the 70s for the first time since March of last season, Smith just nodded his head and pursed his lips.
“That’s cool, that’s cool. I want to do it against the Heat.”