Pump Up Music: Stabbing Westward -- "Shame"
The Big Picture: The Atlanta Hawks keep taking incremental steps forward. First, it was taking a chance on Joe Johnson and discovering that he wasn't just a product of Mike D'Antoni's system. They missed a chance to draft either Chris Paul or Deron Williams (or Raymond Felton, or any point guard, for that matter) when they drafted Marvin Williams, who was immediately stuck behind Josh Childress, but Williams has turned out to be a solid player regardless, a guy who's improved each year he's been in the league. When they finally signed Mike Bibby, a real point guard, signaling that they'd moved beyond the notion of Boris Diaw: point guard, and Joe Johnson: point guard,they took a significant step forward.
Their most recent step forward coincides not with any new additions, but with the evolution of their key players, Josh Smith, especially. Smith and Gerald Wallace share many stylistic attributes, and, until this season, one of their worst was a taste for three pointers they, unfortunately, were not very good at making.
This year, they've diverged in their long range shooting strategies. Where Wallace is suddenly making threes at a 38% clip, probably because he's dramatically improved his shot selection, Smith has eschewed three pointers entirely, attempting, and missing, only 7 this entire season. Some of those were surely last-second heaves, too. Staying inside has done wonders for Smith's rebounding and shooting efficiency, his assist rate has gone up, and he's simply a better all-around player for it, embracing his role as power forward instead of fancying himself a 6-9 slashing guard. It's been a pleasure this season to watch him exploit his elite athleticism within his liberating confines.
Key to Victory: First, and most important, Joe Johnson is out. If the Hawks want to go with Bibby and Jamal Crawford much of the time, then bring it, because Stephen Jackson will just back down whichever shorter guard is on him.
Second, Boris Diaw will initially be charged with guarding Smith, though Wallace may see time covering him, and Tyrus Thomas should get good minutes at the power forward slot. Diaw's primary advantage against Smith is that he can credibly draw him out to the perimeter. If he can effectively do that, it'll give the Cats an opportunity to win the rebounding battle with Wallace and their centers.
Detail That May Interest .08% of You: Mario West's middle name is Marcee.