Horford becoming Hawks' leader
Young center Al Horford has become the Hawks' vocal leader on the floor
Horford says he learns by example, but he's not afraid to speak out
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BOSTON -- The small white sign near the door of the Celtics' locker room read:
INDIVIDUALS WIN GAMES
TEAMS WIN TITLES
Across the hallway Thursday night sat Hawks center Al Horford in the visitors' locker room as an athletic trainer wrapped ice bags around each of his hands, both sore and swollen from recent poundings under the basket.
"These teams realize how to be on top and the way to win," Horford said of the Celtics, as well as the Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Jazz, all of whom have victimized the Hawks this season. "That's where we have to get to."
The frustrated Hawks were 16-11 after their fourth loss -- a 102-90 defeat to the East-leading Celtics -- in nine games without All-Star guard Joe Johnson, who had been shooting 40.9 percent (an eight-year low) before he had surgery on Dec. 2 to remove a "loose body" from his right elbow. Also missing from the Hawks' roster in Boston was reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jamal Crawford, who was sidelined by a sore back. And to cap it all off, forward Josh Smith came up empty, turning in a horrid 0-for-8, one-point effort.
Put it all together and you're left with a team that will be relying more than ever on Horford, the 24-year-old All-Star center who is the closest thing they have to a vocal leader.
"One of the true qualities of a leader is they're not afraid to step on any toes," first-year coach Larry Drew said of Horford. "He is starting to show that, and he does it in a way that he's not trying to belittle his teammates. But I like the fact that he makes it known -- if it's a bad shot, if you're not hustling back, he does it in a way that a leader would do it, and he's not afraid to speak up."
Horford has been contending for a second straight All-Star invitation while averaging 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists as an undersized 6-foot-10 center. At times this season he has shown versatility by shifting to power forward -- his natural position -- but the Hawks need more than numbers from him. They're counting on Horford to help channel Smith's potential and elevate the overall performance of a 53-win team that has been in the doldrums since its humiliating four-game sweep by Orlando in the second round of the playoffs last season, when the Magic clobbered them by a record 25.3 points per game.
Foul trouble limited Horford to two points in eight first-half minutes Thursday, and he played just well enough over the final two quarters -- finishing with eight points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes overall -- to join Marvin Williams (26 points) and Jeff Teague (18) in keeping the Hawks within two points early in the fourth. But they were outworked by an elder Celtics team coming off a frantic win the previous night in New York and minus its top three centers (leaving none other than Turkish rookie Semih Erden) and two point guards (forcing Nate Robinson to play 41 minutes in place of Rajon Rondo).
There was nothing any of the Hawks could do to squeeze energy out of Smith, who was cajoled at halftime by Horford and Drew. "I've never had one of those games since my second year in the league," Smith said. "I got down on myself too early because things weren't falling."
The Hawks hope Horford will help Smith stamp out his erratic play and realize his potential as an explosive playmaker at both ends of the court. They arrived in Atlanta from opposite ends of the NBA feeder system: The 6-9 Smith was an AAU prodigy who at 18 was selected with the 17th pick by the Hawks in 2004; Horford helped lead Florida to two NCAA championships before the Hawks drafted him No. 3 in 2007.
"Josh was so talented coming out of high school, obviously he was ready," Horford said. "I needed a little more time. For me going to college, I really learned a lot about winning and playing team ball and things like that. That's where I come from -- trying to help us to be the best team that we can be, and knowing that I have to sacrifice or give up some things in order for that to happen. I think Josh wants to win as well, and we're just working at it together to do it."
Smith had been performing like an All-Star candidate -- posting 16.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.2 blocks -- before his awful performance Thursday. "When he's playing the right way, we're a very tough team to beat," Horford said. "He's evolved so much ever since I've been here. At first you could say he was a little bit reckless, wild, throwing passes that weren't there. But he's getting better at that. Everybody makes mistakes during the game, but it's been a [180-degree turn] with him since I've been here."
Drew has installed an early-offense series designed to reduce one-on-one play and inspire Smith, Horford and Johnson -- who returned to the Hawks on Friday about a week and a half earlier than expected -- to keep the ball moving instead of reverting to the dribble, which was a stagnancy of previous Hawks teams. But tactics can accomplish only so much: The Hawks have yet to put together an inspired run of performances, despite their favorable record overall.
Horford has always had leadership qualities. "For some reason, ever since I can recall I've always been about the team and about making sure our guys stay together and stuff like that," he said. That perspective was broadened by his championship years at Florida, though he found it difficult to transfer the same motivational tactics to the NBA. "In the NBA, everybody has their own little world, and I really had to adjust to that. In college, you can hold guys more accountable. Here as a rookie, I really didn't want to step on anybody's toes."
The Hawks need to show more spirit and heart, because waiting for Johnson to provide inspiration isn't a likely formula -- he isn't particularly vocal, after all.
"Mostly I do my stuff by example," said Horford. "But when I need to speak out, I say something and guys listen." They need it now.