Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 1/12/12
ATLANTA If there were one player whom the Hawks couldnt afford to lose, it probably is Al Horford, Atlantas two-time All-Star center. So the news that Horford is out with a shoulder injury for three to four months effectively the remainder of the regular season is downright crushing news. Its unexpected news, too. Im still surprised, said Horford, whos averaging 13 points and 7.5 rebounds. I was hoping that it was a sprain and I could rehab it for a few weeks and come back. He plans to get a second opinion, but either way, surgery is likely required, which means the Hawks will be without The Boss for much longer than theyd like and maybe longer than their playoff hopes can handle. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Horford form the Atlantas Big Three. Each brings his own value and set of skills that the Hawks, always a solid playoff team but not quite elite, cant really do without. Johnson is the squads go-to scorer, Atlantas clear-out option (Iso-Joe is what the fans half-sarcastically call him). Smith is the do-it-all Swiss Army dude. He catches alley-oops, blocks shots, pressures the ball, leads the break whatever Atlanta needs. And then theres Horford. The Hawks always have been thin up front thats why the barely 6-foot-10 Horford has played his full career in Atlanta at center, even though his more natural position (by his and most opinions) probably is power forward. Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins are the big guys behind Horford on the depth chart. They hustle, thats for sure, but they dont rate too high on the skills chart. So this no Al thing is an issue. He brings something very unique to the table, Hawks coach Larry Drew said before Thursdays 111-81 win over the Bobcats, still picking up the mental pieces. He has the size where he can play two positions. Hes very versatile and very mobile on the floor. A big strength of his game is he can pick-n-pop and you can always post him up. Hes going to certainly be missed. And its not just his play on the court. Johnson is probably the quietest All-Star in the league. He can go full games without uttering more than a few sentences. Smith has a reputation (probably only half-deserved) as a bit of a live wire. The Hawks have been described as rudderless more than a few times. Its in this environment that Horford always has stood out as a stabilizing presence and voice. His leadership and presence out on the court is certainly felt, Drew said. And you can see how the guys react and I think thats going to be sorely missed. Hes kind of the glue for us. Hes a stabilizer. Hes a guy that huddles the team, that talks in the huddle. Hes not afraid to call people out. Hes a leader. The guys respect him. Well, you can only do so much leading on the bench, in a suit. So what now? In an ideal world, the Hawks continue to compete for a playoff spot without Horford, who remains optimistic that he could get healthy in time for the postseason. Drew thinks the roster is still a playoff caliber team, which is very debatable. He also stated that he will sit down with general manager Rick Sund and the management team to see where we go from here, indicating that some free agent additions andor trades might be necessary to keep Atlanta from missing the playoffs for the first time in almost half a decade. Everybodys jobs just got a little harder, veteran Jerry Stackhouse said. From the top to the bottom, from the GM to the players, everybodys gotta pick it up a little bit and figure out whats the next move to keep this team in the position of contending. Stackhouse seemed to allude to acquiring help. The two hardest positions to fill in this league is the center and point guard positions, he said. But, Als a little bit different in that a lot of his skills are like a (power forward). So from the standpoint of getting somebody in his place, it doesnt have to be a center, it could be a power forward that we put alongside Josh as long as (Horfords replacement) rebounds and protects us the way Al does. These are the decisions that Sund and Drew will have to make quickly and on the fly. In the meantime, the Hawks have some stepping up to do. Smith said players are forced to play a little outside of their element. He also (very curiously) semi-bristled at the thought that he now bears more responsibility. I have enough responsibilities, he said. I have to do pretty much everything. And hes right about that. Theres not much on the court that Smith is not asked to do. But surely losing Horford means more burden for Smith, right? When pressed on the issue, he simply said No. Fair enough. But witness Thursdays win over Charlotte, in which he scored a season-high 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. As has been discussed, Horford is not your garden variety big man, theres an intelligence and sophistication to his game that helps Smith, Johnson and whomever is playing point guard with their playmaking responsibilities. Hes not the big man whom a team tells to go stand somewhere and wait for us to shoot and then go try to get the offensive rebound. Whether or not Smith acknowledges it, all that really matters is that he and his teammates are up for the challenge. Drew said that, although he remains confident that this is still a playoff squad, one thing that concerns me more than anything is how we respond. Given the talent and depth, I certainly think we can make a playoff push. And its going to be my job to keep these guys mentally strong enough to push through a situation like this. Pachulia and rookie power forward Ivan Johnson started off the rest of the Horford-less season in promising fashion, combining for 22 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks. Stackhouse doesnt expect it to stop, either. I dont sense this as a copout group, he said. It could easily be woe is us, because Al is out, but I dont see us copping out. Atlanta has 54 games and about three months to prove him right.
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