The Hawks were awaiting MRI results Wednesday to determine power forward Josh Smith’s status after he left Tuesday’s crushing Game 2 loss to Boston with a sprained patella ligament in his left knee. If Smith is out, it’s hard to see any way Atlanta can realistically compete with the Celtics. Atlanta is already missing two of its top three big men in Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia, and if Smith is gone, the team will just have too many players whom Boston can happily ignore on defense in order to contain more threatening Hawks.
A quick note on recovery time: I chatted Wednesday morning with Donald Rose, an orthopedic surgeon and professor at NYU who has treated athletes of all kinds, including NBA players; he worked for the Sixers in the early 1980s. Rose says the recovery time for Smith’s injury can range from “two days to two months,” depending on the severity — the size of the inflamed area, the location of the injury along the tendon (from the knee cap down) and other variables. Mild cases can pass in a few days with anti-inflammatory medication and rest, according to Rose. Players who attempt to slog through the pain can expect limited range of motion and jumping ability, he added.
Back to the court: Boston’s defenders are already ignoring several Hawks players, even with Smith, swingman Joe Johnson and point guard Jeff Teague all contributing, and with Smith continuing to star as Atlanta’s best all-around player. Kevin Garnett has spent most of this series roving off Hawks big men Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson, shutting off Teague’s driving lanes on pick-and-rolls (with Smith often working as the screener) and those plays where Joe Johnson curls off a pick at the elbow. The downside for Boston is that Garnett is often not the primary defender on Smith, leaving that assignment to the inconsistent Brandon Bass, a non-factor through the first two games. But the strategy is working in general, as Boston earned a road split Tuesday without suspended point guard Rajon Rondo and has held Atlanta to a sub-Bobcatsian 90 points per 100 possessions in the series. Remove one of Atlanta’s only above-average offensive players, and things could get very, very ugly for a team that already plays some ugly ball.
The Hawks will respond in a lot of ways, none of which are especially appealing. They will have to shift an even heavier burden onto Collins and Ivan Johnson, and though both have some decent skills, they are role players for a reason and will generally get exposed given more minutes. Their presence is already killing Atlanta’s spacing.
Atlanta also will go small, either dusting off Vladimir Radmanovic as a small-ball power forward or simply continuing to use the combination of Marvin Williams and Tracy McGrady in that role. Boston is sort of thin on the wing without Ray Allen, but it might be thinner up front, and it got useful minutes in Game 2 from guards Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling (nailing those corner threes with Atlanta player shouting at him) and especially swingman Marquis Daniels.
Williams has made zero impact in this series, save for giving Boston a place for Paul Pierce to rest on defense while someone else does the dirty work against Joe Johnson. Williams can hit corner threes, and he has been aggressive this season driving to the basket when the Hawks kick the ball his way for spot-up chances. That hasn’t been happening in this series yet, but it will have to if Smith is sidelined. McGrady has been a fairly steady presence as a short-minutes creator off the bench and can even isolate against some defenders, but the Hawks cannot ask him to be a huge contributor at this point.
In essence, less Smith means more minutes for bench players, and that hasn’t worked for the Hawks all season. Atlanta has shot just 4-of-23 in this series in Smith’s 16 minutes on the bench, and its offense has collapsed during stretches of the second and fourth quarters in which both Joe Johnson and Smith typically rest. Coach Larry Drew cut short the second of those stretches Tuesday, sensing his second unit had no chance to score against Boston’s core players. For the season, the Hawks have averaged about 104 points per 100 possessions when Smith plays, a borderline top-five mark, and a putrid 97 points per 100 possessions when he sits. As I’ve noted before, the Hawks have struggled more than an average team this season in scoring against the league’s better defenses, and only the Bulls were stingier than Boston.
Smith has the same bad habits as always — he missed two long jumpers and showboated his way to a missed dunk within the first six minutes of Game 2 — but Atlanta’s offense just dies without him. He has worked Bass on the perimeter and in the post, functioned as a solid pick-and-toll partner for Teague and even forced the Celtics to send a second defender his way when Garnett is his primary defender. He’s probably the best diagonal passer out of the post in the league, and he can ignite Atlanta’s rare transition chances. In one third-quarter sequence Tuesday, Ivan Johnson forced Bass into a tough miss in the post, and as Bass complained about an alleged foul, Smith grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball, saw Johnson outrunning Bass down the floor and fed Johnson for a layup. Smith can manufacture points this way that Atlanta just doesn’t get otherwise.
Atlanta will obviously miss Smith on defense, too, though these teams combine for such poor offensive performances that it seems inevitable every game will be close and low-scoring. But taking away Smith’s size, shot-blocking and mobility against the pick-and-roll may tip the balance more than expected, especially if Atlanta goes smaller to compensate.
Bottom line: Between this potentially bad news for Atlanta and the ACL tear to Chicago’s Derrick Rose, it appears the basketball gods are conspiring to give Boston every chance to get to the Eastern Conference finals.