Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 1/19/12
When Al Horford went down for the season with his shoulder injury, you really wondered if the Hawks were prepared for what was ahead. Before the first game without Horford, a dazed team spouted the usual "we have to step up" maxims. And then there was Josh Smith, who initially seemed deluded, saying he didn't think his responsibilities would increase at all ("I have enough responsibilities," he said), before easing his defenses and admitting he and his teammates would have to play "a little outside their element." Well, Atlanta sent the Blazers back to Portland with a loss. The Hawks' 92-89 win makes them 4-0 since Horford went down. Everybody is playing "a little out of their element" alright especially the author of that statement. He had 17 points, 11 boards, three blocks and two steals against the Blazers. He was everywhere. He controlled the boards, he pushed the tempo and he brought the "energy" the "energy" that coach Larry Drew says eludes the Hawks so many nights. And he brought that energy for 42 minutes. It was a "broad shoulder" performance. Atlanta needed a do-it-all performance from Smith and he gave them one. "He's playing at an All-Star level at both ends," said Drew. "He's getting to the free throw line, so that tells me he's being aggressive. At the defensive end, he's playing with a high energy level. He's banging. He's getting it off the glass. He's getting out on the break. He's just playing at a real high level." Joe Johnson was right there, too, dropping in 24 his fourth straight 20-plus night after a slow start to his season and the game. For instance, take this late-game sequence: with the Hawks clinging to a two point lead with about two minutes left in the game, Smith hit an 18-footer as the shot clock was expiring. On the Blazers next possession, he forced Aldridge (banging the slimmed down Smith all night) to kick it out to Wes Matthews for a rushed jumper. Then Smith grabbed the rebound and slung an outlet to a streaking Johnson except it was intercepted by XX, only to be stolen back by Johnson, who lobbed it to Jeff Teague for the alley-oop. That wildness, of which Smith and Johnson were the main culprits, pretty much sealed the game. "We just want to be the leaders," said Smith. "We're both the captains. We know we have to be the initiators of everything. We're not making excuses. We're putting it on our shoulders." Charlotte, Minnesota and Toronto Atlanta's three previous wins probably won't be playing in the postseason, Portland probably will. Smith said Portland was "a test" for the Hawks. Marvin Williams called it a "quality win." The Blazers are a capable squad with former All Stars (Gerald Wallace), prospective Olympians (LaMarcus Aldridge) and a former Hawk Jamal Crawford. Crawford returned to the place that gave his career some heft. He spent the first XX years of career in Chicago and New York when the Bulls and Knicks were, routinely, two of the worst squads in the league. Then he came to Atlanta as a free agent in 2009, won Sixth Man of the Year, played in two straight postseasons, hit game-sealing treys like the one against Orlando in Game 3 last season playoff quarterfinals. Atlanta didn't have the money to resign Crawford, so the Seattle native returned to the Pacific Northwest with the Blazers. Atlanta fans gave Crawford a nice reception when he entered the game. After that, Philips was enemy territory. The crowd booed his first bucket. Smith and Johnson took turns blocking his shot. Zaza Pachulia basically clotheslined the poor dude. "I tried not to think about coming back to Atlanta and just focus on getting a win," said Crawford. And he almost single-handedly made that happen with a 14-point fourth quarter. In fact, Crawford's late-game three kept an Atlanta win in serious jeopardy. The crowd really would have turned on him them. "I knew that was coming," said Smith, of Crawford's 14-point fourth quarter. "I'm just glad we could slow him down a little bit, because he was really getting it going." Portland is now just 5-5 in their last 10 games. Like Atlanta, they're dealing with losses. Greg Oden as usual is still a ways away from returning to action and Brandon Roy Portland's "franchise player" when they morphed from the "Jail Blazers" back to the Trail Blazers retired during the offseason because of a bum knee that never healed. They play out in the Wild Wild West they need Wallace, Aldridge, Crawford, Ray Felton and the rest of squad to start playing outside their element like these surprisingly resilient Hawks. Other Hawks are stepping up. As Drew said, Atlanta has "some guys that are really gutting it out." The Pachulia and Ivan Johnson combo is giving Atlanta an ornery toughness. One game Williams might step up his production, the next game it might be Jeff Teague. "I think when Al went out, it just brought us tighter," said Teague. "Guys just want to win and we're going out there and getting it done."
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