ATLANTA — Josh Smith and Al Horford know the routine. They know what it looks like to everyone on the outside. They’ve been at this long enough in this town to know that their doubters grow exponentially in the wake of an ugly loss or two, as is the case for the Atlanta Hawks in their first round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers.
“People love to throw dirt on us after one game,” Smith said. “It never fails.”
The Hawks struggled mightily in Indiana, getting worked over and physically whipped by a bigger and much more rugged Pacers team en route to the 0-2 deficit they carry into Game 3 Saturday night at Philips Arena.
“We tend to be at our best when people are doubting us,” Smith said. “There’s no other way around it really. It’s who we’ve been for years now. Just when you are ready to count us out, we’ll surprise you.”
The only problem is, they are not those same ol’ predictably unpredictable Hawks we’re used to. That team was dismantled last summer when new general manager Danny Ferry took over and traded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams before he got his new business cards printed up.
The roster gumbo Hawks coach Larry Drew has had to stir to keep this team afloat this season didn’t look anything like the mismatched crew that rolled to five straight playoff appearance prior to this season with a core of Smith, Horford, Johnson, Williams and Zaza Pachulia, who played in just 52 games this season before an Achilles injury that required surgery ended his season.
That the Hawks made it six straight is a testament to Drew and his staff and the guys healthy enough to finish a tumultuous and injury-plagued regular season that also sacked Lou Williams (torn ACL) on Jan. 18, after he’d played just 39 games in his first season with his hometown team.
So no, these are not necessarily those same ol’ Hawks we’re all used to, not with nine free agents on the roster and a head coach whose contract is up this summer as well. This is a team in transition, not the young up and coming Hawks from three or four years ago..
“It’s very different, very different. There’s no question it’s totally different,” Horford said. “I think that Josh and I and even Jeff [Teague], we’ve had to deal with major adjustments this year. It even goes back to last year with me going down, the team adjusted and played well. And then this year, we’ve dealt with injuries throughout the year, Zaza, Lou and a number of other guys have missed time. We use something crazy like 40 different [starting] lineups and through everything we’ve been able to adjust. That’s one of our strengths, actually, that we’re able to play through injuries and whatever adversity comes our way.”
Horford and Smith earned their postseason stripes battling back from adversity in their first playoff series, an epic seven-game tussle with the No. 1 seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics in the first round in 2008. The Hawks got their noses bloodied in two games in Boston but rebounded at Philips Arena with two huge wins to even the series.
The home teams went on to win each of the next three games with the Celtics winning big in Game 7. But the Hawks had established themselves on a national stage. They played 33 playoff games in the three seasons that followed, taking two steps back for every three steps forward.
The Pacers present an intriguing problem for the Hawks in that they are big and physical, deep and athletic, with a mix of young talent (Paul George) and veteran leadership (David West) that makes them extremely difficult for the Hawks to counter in a series.
Still, the Hawks are not the least bit deterred by their current predicament (blame it on that experience from the Boston series six years ago).
“This is not doom and gloom at all for our group,” Drew said. “We’ve done some good things in this series. There are certainly some things we have to do better in order to get a win. But we’re coming into [Game 3] with a lot of confidence and knowing the importance of the game and we’ll come out and play our best basketball. Anything is possible in the playoffs. Home court is very important. You look around the league at the different playoff series and that point is made night after night. We know we’re in a situation where this game has tremendous importance and we know how well we have to play tomorrow and I’m expecting our guys to come out and do that.”
More importantly, they need no prompting to realize the gravity of what awaits them if they can’t hold off the Pacers on their home floor. The next team to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a series will be the first.
“We all know what’s at stake,” Smith said. “That’s what made this postseason really special for us. We had so many new faces getting acclimated to this team and to this franchise, and that goes from the front office on down to the team. It’s a special group to have fought through the injuries and all of the drama, not knowing who was going to be here after the [February] trade deadline and all of the stuff that has comes along with it. And here we are, still right smack in the middle of this series.”
If you let these guys tell it, they’ve got the Pacers exactly where they want them to be, within reach.
“The way the first two games have gone … you know better than I do, a 2-0 series is nothing to us,” Horford said. “Game 3 is the biggest game for us. It’s going to define what will happen in this series, not anything that happened in those first two games and not anything that anyone says about us can do that. We’re still in a good position because we’re right in the middle of it like we always are.”