ATLANTA -- Size matters in basketball, and in more subtle ways than you think. Take Atlanta’s win over Cleveland on Wednesday, a perfunctory 98-84 triumph that came about almost entirely because the Hawks’ wing players were several inches taller than Cleveland.
The resulting attack wasn’t necessarily exhilarating, but it was highly effective. Atlanta posted Joe Johnson on the right block ... and then Marvin Williams on the left block … and then Joe on the left block … and back to the right block ... and so on.
Atlanta posted up the 6-foot-7 Johnson on Daniel Gibson (6-2) nearly every possession, and while Gibson is capable defender in other respects (my Cleveland spies said he’s the best team defender they have besides Anderson Varejao), he was no match for Johnson physically. Cleveland’s best hope would have been to put him on a medieval stretcher rack at halftime and have him come out of the locker room 6-5. Sadly, the players’ union frowns on such tactics.
Here’s the insidious part: Johnson himself didn’t have a monstrous game, as he finished with 23 points. But with Cleveland double-teaming on nearly every catch, it set the ball whirling around the perimeter to another open Hawk, inevitably leading to an open J for Williams (7 of 11, 17 points) or Al Horford (8 of 13, 18 points).
At the end of the night Johnson had seven assists and several more “hockey assists,” and the Hawks slowly wore down Cleveland’s resistance after a post-heavy attack produced only 17 first-quarter points for Atlanta.
“When you see what you think is an advantage match-up wise, you’ve got to go to it,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “We did a good job of being patient, accepting the double-team, and then making the pass out of the double-team and getting the ball to the open man.”
Drew also thought the defense recovered after a halftime talking-to for “missing numerous assignments” in the first two periods (although against Cleveland’s limited attack it’s tough to know whether it was great defense or just the Cavs’ lack of talent).
In fact, it says something about the state of the two teams that the Hawks took no particular delight in this one. They won a game they were supposed to win before a tiny crowd, and did it while producing far less than their typical quota of highlight-reel material.
They’ll need that stuff for other playoff-caliber teams that can match their size, requiring them to win with quickness, skill and guile. Wednesday, however, size was more than enough.