Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 1/17/12
Josh Smith tried to warn us. When Al Horford went down for the regular season with a torn left pectoral muscle, Smith warned anyone that would listen that the Hawks would not just fold and relinquish their position in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Three wins later and folks are finally starting to listen to the Hawks' enigmatic star, who pounded the Toronto Raptors for a game-high 28 points and a season-high 15 rebounds to propel the Hawks to a 93-84 Martin Luther King Jr. Day win at Philips Arena. Smith is willing to serve as the Hawks' catalyst for as long as it takes, and will do it his way. His teammates will either follow his lead or have to move aside as Smith continues to do his thing. And so far, they have followed. "He's just playing, not worrying about anything, about missing shots or anything ... just playing," Jeff Teague said of Smith. "And I think it's carrying over to everybody. He has me playing like that, not worrying about things, turnovers, things like that ... just staying steady." The best part of Smith's recent surge -- he's averaging 21.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals over his last five games -- is that he's playing at ease. Trade rumors that dogged him throughout the summer and into training camp have disappeared, with most everyone realizing that there is no way the Hawks would move him with Horford on the shelf for the season. Smith likes the vibe he feels in the Hawks' locker room right now, loves it in fact. "I'm not surprised because we have guys in this locker room who can play," Smith said. "We have veteran leadership. We have veteran guys who have been there and done that before. All we need to do is just keep flying under the radar." NOTES, QUOTES It took the Hawks until the fourth quarter to finally exert their defensive influence over the Raptors, yet another game where their performance on that end of the floor ebbed and flowed. It's not exactly the way Hawks coach Larry Drew likes for it to happen or would draw it up on a white board. The ends didn't necessarily justify the means in this case, but Drew was pleased his crew finally found the mark. "The difference was, especially in the fourth quarter, defensively, we tightened up a little bit more," Drew said. "They only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter. It was one of those games you just search for the right combination. I know when we got a little bit of a lead, and trying to extend it, Toronto did a good job with their defense." The Hawks finished Martin Luther King Jr. Day as one of just a handful of teams in the league with double digit wins so far this season. Whether or not that's a byproduct of their play or a combination of their play and the schedule, remains up for debate. The Hawks' next five games are against Portland, at Philadelphia, against Cleveland, at Milwaukee and at San Antonio. "It's going to take team efforts every night," Teague said. "We've played well the last few games, but coming in here, Portland is a really good team. They'll play hard. We'll just have to stay together." QUOTE TO NOTE "Bench guys came in and gave us a lift last game, and the starters came in and did the same today, and everybody else followed." -- forward Josh Smith on the Hawks' total team effort against the Raptors.
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