HQ: After years of setting-up camp at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings Atlanta has finally come around and is starting to look like a real contender in the East. What's been the biggest reason for this? Growth? Maturity? ZaZa?
I want to give sole credit to Zaza. I really do. I could even make a compelling case for it, but the truth is growth and maturity are the big reasons. Specifically, growth and maturity in Josh Smith. He has improved in almost every facet of his game, and really that did not take adding any new skills, it just required attempting (and subsequently missing) fewer jump shots and trying most of the time. His athleticism combined with effort supersedes skill. Add the addition of Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith, some internal improvement from Al Horford, and the continutity built by having the same starters and coach for the last season and half, and the team has easily been able to take the step from clear fourth seed to probably still fourth seed but not so clear anymore.
HQ: A lot of the talk in Toronto centers around CB4 and whether he is staying or going. What's the feeling on Joe Johnson? WIll he stay or go? What sort of impact would his departure have on this team given it has taken them so long to become relevant again?
The Hawks world is very split on this. So may answer is far from consensus, but I think Joe will go where he gets the most money for the most years. No home town discount this summer. If the Hawks have to outbid other teams to keep him and approach a max salary over five years, I think it will hamper the internal growth of Al Horford and Josh Smith and financially limit the Hawks from contending for conference championships going forward. Joe demands a lot of shots, and he has a lot of wear and tear. There is no doubt in my mind by year four of whatever deal he has will be one that deserves about six (and not fifteen) million for the effort. Still, if the Hawks can sign him to a reasonable rate, I think they should and will bring him back. Atlanta has been so centered around Joe and found such success with that strategy, it would be a huge risk to let him go.
Atlanta without Joe Johnson next year would struggle to make the playoffs, but building around the front court and spending the money that would have gone to Joe wisely two or three years down the road, might yield a team with a higher ceiling than one with Johnson.
HQ: What are the keys to the game for the Hawks to ensure they secure another win against the Raps?
I don't think Atlanta is going to shoot the ball as well as they did last time against the Raps. So take solace in that, but your team is not what they like to call "good on defense." So if the Hawks can stay patient, work the ball around, inside out, get in some pick and rolls with Horford, I think the Hawks will score enough points to win. But, Toronto can fill it up. I expect Chris Bosh to put in more than two points, and it is when the defensive break downs happen for the Hawks that they start to play one on five and try to cure every problem known to man every time they touch the ball. Translation, there are a lot fadaway, contested jump shots.
I expect Atlanta to win, but I expected that against the Knicks a week ago too. Still, if the Hawks rebound with tenacity and have balanced scoring I think they pull out the road win.