Horford injury could cripple Hawks' hopes

BY foxsports • January 12, 2012

ATLANTA — If there were one player whom the Hawks couldn’t afford to lose, it
probably is Al Horford, Atlanta’s two-time All-Star center. So the news
that Horford is out with a shoulder injury for three to four months —
effectively the remainder of the regular season — is downright crushing
news.

It’s unexpected news, too.

“I’m still surprised,”
said Horford, who’s averaging 13 points and 7.5 rebounds. “I was hoping
that it was a sprain and I could rehab it for a few weeks and come
back.”

He plans to get a second opinion, but either way, surgery
is likely required, which means the Hawks will be without The Boss for
much longer than they’d like and maybe longer than their playoff hopes
can handle.

Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Horford form the
Atlanta’s “Big Three.” Each brings his own value and set of skills that
the Hawks, always a solid playoff team but not quite elite, can’t really
do without. Johnson is the squad’s go-to scorer, Atlanta’s clear-out
option (“Iso-Joe” is what the fans half-sarcastically call him). Smith
is the do-it-all Swiss Army dude. He catches alley-oops, blocks shots,
pressures the ball, leads the break — whatever Atlanta needs.

And then there’s Horford.

The
Hawks always have been thin up front – that’s why the barely 6-foot-10
Horford has played his full career in Atlanta at center, even though his
more natural position (by his and most opinions) probably is power
forward. Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins are the big guys behind Horford
on the depth chart. They hustle, that’s for sure, but they don’t rate
too high on the skills chart. So this “no Al” thing is an issue.

“He
brings something very unique to the table,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said
before Thursday’s 111-81 win over the Bobcats, still picking up the
mental pieces. “He has the size where he can play two positions. He’s
very versatile and very mobile on the floor. A big strength of his game
is he can pick-n-pop and you can always post him up. He’s going to
certainly be missed.”

And it’s not just his play on the court.
Johnson is probably the quietest All-Star in the league. He can go full
games without uttering more than a few sentences. Smith has a reputation
(probably only half-deserved) as a bit of a live wire. The Hawks have
been described as rudderless more than a few times. It’s in this
environment that Horford always has stood out as a stabilizing presence
and voice.

“His leadership and presence out on the court is
certainly felt,” Drew said. “And you can see how the guys react and I
think that’s going to be sorely missed. He’s kind of the glue for us.
He’s a stabilizer. He’s a guy that huddles the team, that talks in the
huddle. He’s not afraid to call people out. He’s a leader. The guys
respect him.”

Well, you can only do so much leading on the bench, in a suit. So what now?

In
an ideal world, the Hawks continue to compete for a playoff spot
without Horford, who remains optimistic that he could get healthy in
time for the postseason. Drew thinks the roster is still a playoff
caliber team, which is very debatable. He also stated that he will sit
down with general manager Rick Sund and the management team to “see
where we go from here,” indicating that some free agent additions and/or
trades might be necessary to keep Atlanta from missing the playoffs for
the first time in almost half a decade.

“Everybody’s jobs just
got a little harder,” veteran Jerry Stackhouse said. “From the top to
the bottom, from the GM to the players, everybody’s gotta pick it up a
little bit and figure out what’s the next move to keep this team in the
position of contending.”

Stackhouse seemed to allude to acquiring help.

“The
two hardest positions to fill in this league is the center and point
guard positions,” he said. “But, Al’s a little bit different in that a
lot of his skills are like a (power forward). So from the standpoint of
getting somebody in his place, it doesn’t have to be a center, it could
be a power forward that we put alongside Josh — as long as (Horford’s
replacement) rebounds and protects us the way Al does.”

These
are the decisions that Sund and Drew will have to make quickly and on
the fly. In the meantime, the Hawks have some stepping up to do. Smith
said players are forced to play “a little outside of their element.” He
also (very curiously) semi-bristled at the thought that he now bears
more responsibility.

“I have enough responsibilities,” he said. “I have to do pretty much everything.”

And
he’s right about that. There’s not much on the court that Smith is not
asked to do. But surely losing Horford means more burden for Smith,
right? When pressed on the issue, he simply said “No.”

Fair
enough. But witness Thursday’s win over Charlotte, in which he scored a
season-high 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. As has been discussed,
Horford is not your garden variety big man, there’s an intelligence and
sophistication to his game that helps Smith, Johnson and whomever is
playing point guard with their playmaking responsibilities. He’s not the
big man whom a team tells to go stand somewhere and “wait for us to
shoot and then go try to get the offensive rebound.”

Whether or not Smith acknowledges it, all that really matters is that he and his teammates are up for the challenge.

Drew
said that, although he remains confident that this is still a playoff
squad, “one thing that concerns me more than anything is how we respond.
Given the talent and depth, I certainly think we can make a playoff
push. And it’s going to be my job to keep these guys mentally strong
enough to push through a situation like this.”

Pachulia and
rookie power forward Ivan Johnson started off the rest of the
Horford-less season in promising fashion, combining for 22 points, 17
rebounds and two blocks. Stackhouse doesn’t expect it to stop, either.

“I
don’t sense this as a copout group,” he said. “It could easily be ‘woe
is us,’ because Al is out, but I don’t see us copping out.”

Atlanta has 54 games and about three months to prove him right.


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