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True to form, though, the Hawks did not allow their personal opinions to affect their basketball. They have played poorly because they have played poorly; they have not needed any dark intrigues to foul themselves up. The absence of Caldwell was serious from the start, and then came the problem of adjusting to Maravich's style. He is enjoying a 22 season, frequently passes brilliantly and is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. But he still dribbles around too much, often leading Hazzard into the same fault, it seems. The Hawks waste so much time before they set up that they frequently have no time left for options if their play doesn't work. There is a problem at the other end of the court, too. Chicago Coach Dick Motta has characterized Maravich's defense as bearing considerable resemblance to "the lend-lease program," but the whole team defense is in disarray.
On offense, the Hawks were one-dimensional until recently, depending upon the shooting of Hudson and Maravich from 20 feet out. But then Hazzard started getting the ball inside to Center Walter Bellamy, and Bellamy started putting it up when he got it. When Bellamy shoots, it opens the whole tent up to three rings instead of offering just a backcourt sideshow.
Though Bellamy has often been tagged as a scapegoat in the past, he is off the hook this year. Hazzard, who was on the trading block earlier (for example, for Dave Stallworth of the Knicks), maintains that since the Hawks started winning around All-Star time, Bellamy has been the best center in the league, after Alcindor. It is worth considering that Atlanta's playoff opponents figure to be New York and then Baltimore, teams that have had Bellamy and let him go, claiming good riddance. The Hawks match up very well against the Knicks in style, speed and personnel, too. Bellamy could be the key.
Says Cincinnati Coach Bob Cousy: "I've read some statements that, unlike Cincinnati, Atlanta can stay in the game with anybody. I think the Hawks are kidding themselves. In order to do this, they need a consistent, sustained effort from Bellamy. Maybe he can do it, but so far as I'm concerned he hasn't done it in seven or eight years."
At one time the Hawks were all of 7½ games behind the Royals, but helped by Cincinnati injuries as much as by their own laissez-faire efforts, they finally caught up last week. While losing a game in Boston Friday night in overtime, however, they played in a style that seemed to reflect all the frustrations and failings of the whole season.
The Hawks outrebounded the Celtics, for example, but lost that advantage on the floor, yielding nine more turnovers than Boston did, six of them in the five-minute overtime. Often the Hawks had difficulty executing the most elementary procedure, like getting the ball passed inbounds. The Celtics burned the Hawks time and again with fast breakaways, maneuvers that Caldwell specialized in preventing.
Scrambling and hustling for stretches, Atlanta would suddenly lapse into indifferent periods and appear distracted and purposeless. For fully nine minutes of the third quarter, the only two Hawks to score were Hudson and Maravich, firing long jumpers.
Atlanta finally tied the score early in the last period and managed to get the Celtics into foul trouble with less than three minutes gone in the quarter. As Guerin began to simmer on the bench, however, his team persistently failed to take advantage of this situation by working the ball in for forcing drives that would produce more fouls or easy scores. Midway through the period he called time out and lit into Hazzard for not getting the ball underneath on the previous play. Hazzard protested that by the time he received the ball and started to set something up, other Hawks had frittered away so much of the 24-second clock that there was no time left for anything but a long bomb.
One of Guerin's most valuable qualities as a coach is the rare ability to blow his top at a player and then forget the whole matter. He only criticizes "in motion," as Hazzard characterizes it; no grudge is left. Never was this more evident than at the end of the regulation game when the Hawks got the ball with three seconds left and the score tied. Guerin set the play for Hudson, but Bridges was forced to pass in to Maravich, who panicked and shot off-balance and from too far away as soon as he got the ball. Guerin tore into Pete at the bench so vehemently that the exchange was clearly visible all over Boston Garden. Hazzard rushed in to defend the rookie, so Guerin shifted his fire to him. Bridges had to intervene and shove Hazzard away. Hardly two minutes later, during a time-out, Guerin and Hazzard stood on the court, each with an arm around the other's back and coolly discussed strategy at length, if to no avail.
Rarely has the regular NBA season appeared to have less relation to the playoffs. The performances of teams like New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles—ones that got out in front of their divisions early and muddled along thereafter—provide few clues as to how they might play when they really have to win again. Big salaries, merger rumors, the lopsided divisional standings and a lot of back-alley loose talk have created a feeling of restlessness on many teams. The players anticipate a trading binge this summer. For many clubs it has been a dull, dissatisfying year.