Smith, Hawks stepping up since Horford injury

Smith, Hawks stepping up since Horford injury

Published Jan. 18, 2012 11:49 p.m. ET

When Al Horford suffered a torn pectoral muscle, you really wondered if the Hawks were prepared for what was ahead. Before the first game without Horford, a dazed team spouted the usual "we have to step up" maxims. And then there was Josh Smith, who initially seemed deluded, saying he didn't think his responsibilities would increase at all ("I have enough responsibilities," he said), before easing his defenses and admitting he and his teammates would have to play "a little outside their element."

Well, Atlanta sent the Blazers back to Portland with a loss. The Hawks' 92-89 win makes them 4-0 since Horford went down. Everybody is playing "a little out of their element" alright – especially the author of that statement. He had 17 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals against the Blazers. He was everywhere. He controlled the boards, he pushed the tempo and brought energy – the "energy" that coach Larry Drew says eludes the Hawks so many nights. And he brought that energy for 42 minutes. It was a "broad shoulder" performance.

Atlanta needed a do-it-all performance from Smith and he gave them one.

"He's playing at an All-Star level at both ends," Drew said. "He's getting to the free-throw line, so that tells me he's being aggressive. At the defensive end, he's playing with a high energy level. He's banging. He's getting it off the glass. He's getting out on the break. He's just playing at a real high level."

Joe Johnson was right there, too, dropping in 24 points – his fourth straight 20-plus night after a slow start to his season and the game.

For instance, take this late-game sequence: With the Hawks clinging to a two-point lead with 1:45 left in the game, Smith hit an 18-footer as the shot clock was expiring. On the Blazers' next possession, he forced Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge to kick it out to Jamal Crawford for a rushed jumper. Then Smith grabbed the rebound and threw an outlet pass to a streaking Johnson – except it was intercepted by Wesley Matthews, only to be stolen back by Johnson, who lobbed it to Jeff Teague for the alley-oop. That wildness, of which Smith and Johnson were the main culprits, pretty much sealed the victory.

"We just want to be the leaders," Smith said. "We're both the captains. We know we have to be the initiators of everything. We're not making excuses. We're putting it on our shoulders."

Charlotte, Minnesota and Toronto – Atlanta's three previous wins – probably won't be playing in the postseason; Portland probably will. Smith said Portland was "a test" for the Hawks. Atlanta forward Marvin Williams called it a "quality win." The Blazers are a capable squad with former All Stars (Gerald Wallace), prospective Olympians (Aldridge) and a former Hawk – Crawford.

Crawford returned to the place that gave his career some heft. He spent the first 8-1/2 years of his career in Chicago and New York when the Bulls and Knicks were, routinely, among the worst teams in the league. Then he came to Atlanta as a free agent in 2009, won Sixth Man of the Year, played in two straight postseasons, hit game-sealing treys like the one against Orlando in Game 3 last season's playoff quarterfinals. Atlanta didn't have the money to re-sign Crawford, so the Seattle native returned to the Pacific Northwest with the Blazers.

Atlanta fans gave Crawford a nice reception when he entered the game Wednesday. After that, Philips was enemy territory. The crowd booed his first bucket. Smith and Johnson took turns blocking his shot.

"I tried not to think about coming back to Atlanta and just focus on getting a win," Crawford said.

And he almost singlehandedly made that happen with a 14-point fourth quarter. In fact, Crawford's late-game three kept an Atlanta win in serious jeopardy.

"I knew that was coming," Smith said of Crawford's fourth-quarter barrage. "I'm just glad we could slow him down a little bit, because he was really getting it going."

Portland is now just 5-5 in their past 10 games. Like Atlanta, the Blazers are dealing with injuries. Greg Oden, whose career has been hampered by injuries, is still a ways from returning to action, and Brandon Roy – Portland's "franchise player" when the team morphed from the "Jail Blazers" back to the Trail Blazers – retired during the offseason because ongoing difficulty with his knees. They play out in the Wild Wild West – they need Wallace, Aldridge, Crawford, Raymond Felton and the rest of squad to start playing outside their element like these surprisingly resilient Hawks.

Other Hawks are stepping up. As Drew said, Atlanta has "some guys that are really gutting it out." Center Zaza Pachulia and forward Ivan Johnson are giving Atlanta some toughness in the frontcourt. One game Williams might step up his production, the next game it might be Teague.

"I think when Al went out, it just brought us tighter," Teague said. "Guys just want to win, and we're going out there and getting it done."