What would that be, you ask...well, let's paint a picture for you.
In round one, we had the perfect embodiment of what you desire in an undermanned team - the Chicago Bulls showing heart and leadership. They were not as talented, not as well coached, and yet pushed a great champion to its limits. They did this without excuses, without worry of home or road games, without complaints about referees and disadvantages (like injuries to Deng or Gordon or an injured mouth or bumps and bruises, flagrant fouls, etc). They simply played their hearts out, worked to accentuate their positives and minimize their negatives and found themselves in a position where what conventional wisdom said was unlikely - and made it plausible. That's what the Playoffs and sport are all about.
In round two, we have encountered yet another example of what you desire in your team - leadership and heart. We'll use a few quotes to make the point for a team that is missing Yao, T McGrady, and Mutumbo.
"I'm sorry for the team that I cannot play, but I have confidence in them," Yao said. "We played as a team, as a group for a long time this year. We understand that only the team can win the game, not a person, and no one is above this team and everyone on this team understands that."
"It's just something we'll have to move on from," Adelman said. "I feel bad for him again. He can't seem to get through [a season] and finish it off. Hopefully, it's going to heal and for the long run, it's going to be fine."
Now, let's use some quotes from our players TODAY.
“I don’t know what we’ve got left,” Johnson said as he walked to his car after practice. “Hopefully, we’ll play with a little fire and not let them close it out on our home court. But I don’t know.”
“Injuries have bogged us down,” Johnson said. “But we can’t blame it on that. You still have to come out, night in and night out, and play with a sense of urgency and be a professional. I’ll say it again — there’s no way possible they are 20 or 30 points better than us. But you have to give it up to them, they’re a great team.”
“In the fourth quarter we shot too many jump shots instead of getting to the basket, and that kills you every time,” Johnson said. “We just don’t play like we really want to win. We’re playing like we’re hoping we’re going to win, not like we know we’re going to win."“In this series we just haven’t made the adjustments,” Woodson said. “And you can blame it on the coach. I’ll take the heat for that. I think a lot of time it comes down to who wants it the most. And right now they’re beating us to the punch on pretty much everything that they want to do and what we want to do.”
Now, what team would you want to cheer for, pay good money to see, count on to always put their best foot forward. How many contradictions to saying - we can beat this team - are contained in these quotes? Is there any correlation from these quotes to the games we've watched so far? I'd say it's all contained there. The coach and the players do not know if they can win. They don't even know if the team will just put its best foot forward and then, they blame some of it on the fact that they are just playing the best team. The same team we've beaten before (and should have been twice this year). We've played all season with injuries and been successful and now, injuries are being discussed as if that's the only reason we're losing by 20 pt margins (conveniently forgetting that we lost by those margins when we were at full strength).
Let's be clear - we believe that heart and leadership can overcome skill and strategy, but you have to have heart and care to lead. The heart is on the players, the leadership (when missing by the players) is on the coach. An argument can be made regarding which is more important and which one you need first while trying to develop the other, but several things were burning through my spirit in round one (with the Bulls) and in round two (with the Rockets). The Hawks defeated the Celtics last season for 3 games on heart and leadership (from Horford and Pachulia and even Johnson) in last season's playoffs. The strategy and skill was still less than the Celtics' and yet, we overcame that with heart and leadership. And after this season, I'm now torn over the fact that I have fallen for the Rockets and Bulls. This from a person who has NEVER cheered for a team other than his own. My DNA doesn't allow for cheering for a team that isn't my own.
The Hawks have now forced me to want to cheer for those teams and even more frighteningly - to NOT want to see this team be successful. I'd prefer that we start OVER than watch a team be mildly successful and give less than its best. I want to watch those teams that want to play their hearts out and lead men into battle play. I don't care if you are the favorite or most talented. I just don't want to hear excuses - just want you to play basketball. I want to feel like the team that defeats you had to play its best to overcome what you brought to the mat.
It's scary how situations are for the Rockets and Hawks could be the same, yet are starkly different.
- Yao, McGrady, and Mutumbo are injured (and in this case, OUT!)
- Horford, Johnson, Williams are injured (but in this case, NOT OUT! And for Johnson, I'm not even accepting the injury excuse for him - he said he's fine and played 45 minutes, so no excuses)
- Young Players-Non-Lottery Picks such as Brooks (1st Round - 26th pick), Landry (2nd Round and shot this season), Lowry (1st round - 24th pick), Wafer (2nd Round), Hayes (Undrafted) are all contributing for the Houston Rockets. When injuries hit, all of them were reserves who were given roles and developed into players who have not blinked when given the opportunity in the playoffs. (Note: The same could be said for the Bulls and other players such as Big Baby Davis, J J Redick, Courtney Lee, and so on.)
- Young Players-Non-Lottery Picks such as Gardner, Jones, West, and let's just put Acie Law IV in here though he was a lottery pick have not been a part of the team's rotation for most of the season, even when injuries dictated that they should get some time in order develop trust and understanding of the system. This did not happen. Even now, when shorthanded, the young Hawks have not been trusted to provide any value in these playoffs. Their roles have not been defined well enough to determine whether it's rust or skill that is keeping them from stepping up.
- Head Cases Artest & Wafer have reared their ugly heads at different times, but the coach has trusted them to put it behind them and continue to contribute.
- Head Case Smith has reared his ugly head at different times, but the coach has not put Smith in a position to put it behind him and contribute.
- The Rockets are playing one of the 2 best players on the planet. While they have 2 players who can trusted to conceivably cover him one-on-one, they are still providing help at every juncture to ensure that he does not score 47 pts on them.
- The Hawks are playing one of the 2 best players on the planet. While they have no one who can be trusted to conceivably cover him one-on-one, they are not doing anything to help stop him at every juncture. In fact, the Woodson post game press conference was an admission that you believe that the double team would have to happen as soon as you cross half court and that that exposes the defense (a defense that has been torched for 3 straight games). To which we say - let's try something different like - double him at half court.
That's what the Bulls and Rockets have taught me. What have they taught you, GM Sund? Coach Woodson? Hawks?