HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Nash‘s long-awaited return to action no doubt captivated most of us during the NBA’s Saturday night fiesta.
But while Nash, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were busy trying to get things in order in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, there was another intriguing matchup between wannabe contenders in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks locked up at Philips Arena in a battle of teams we’re still not quite sure what to make of, what with the Heat and Knicks having already distanced themselves from the pack. A night earlier both teams were at polar opposite ends of the basketball spectrum. The Bulls smashed their way through a physical battle with the Knicks in New York, while the Hawks got stroked by 19 points by the Sixers in Philadelphia.
Fast forward a night and the same two teams looked totally different. In a head-to-head matchup the Hawks dominated the final three quarters of on their way to a 92-75 win.
The game was one thing, a battle of wills between teams trying to forget about the night before in time for a cruel schedule punch that required they both spend no time enjoying or sulking about what happened the night before. The reactions to the outcome from both sides, however, was the truly entertaining part of the night.
Since no one in either locker room has a good explanation for why they can perform at such a high level one night and then fall so flat the next.
“It was a different night, that’s all,” said Hawks guard Lou Williams. “I’m sure you don’t report your best every night. In different games, your body feels different. Your body responds different. Sometimes you travel, sometimes you get an opportunity to sleep in your own bed. Small things like that make a difference.”
Bulls center Joakim Noah, who was in the middle of the action in the win over the Knicks, could tell something was a bit off against the Hawks, who like the Bulls have both impressed with quality wins this season while perplexing with peculiar losses as well.
“We had a letdown because we lost,” Noah said. “One night you come out and play so well and you feel great, and then the next night you come out with the wrong mindset and don’t play well. Our energy was bad, and we settled for too many shots early in the clock. When you’re tired, sometimes you just have to move the ball around, and we didn’t do that. We let (the Hawks) play to their strengths. We can’t get too up or too down about the last two days. You just have to learn from the experience and move on from it.”
If anyone is going to mount a serious challenge to the Heat or Knicks in the East this season, it will have to come from a small group of teams based on what we’ve seen through the first trimester of this season. The Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Sixers have all looked the part at times throughout the past two months. And yet it’s hard to tell if any one of these teams is legitimately up to the task.
We know the Bulls’ chances of mounting that challenge improve dramatically if Derrick Rose is able to return from ACL surgery at anywhere near the MVP-level he played at before going down.
What might surprise some is that the Hawks will need a similar charge from the same position if they are going to shed the label of pretenders and take a seat at the table with the true contenders in the East.
“That was probably one of our most energized wins thus far this year,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew, who Saturday night became the second-fastest Hawks coach to reach 100 wins (behind Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens). “I thought at the very beginning our guys did a really good job, and it started with Jeff Teague and his energy defensively at the very beginning. It was a very clear contrast from [Friday night], where I thought he was a little laid back and didn’t really exert himself defensively. I thought he did a phenomenal job with that. When he does that, he just gets us going. It’s something we talk to Jeff about and something we’ll stay on him about constantly to keep him in the mind frame of being the aggressor defensively, because the rest of the guys feed off of that.”
If the Hawks, like the Bulls, want to be taken seriously, the time to step up is now.