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The Pulse of the NBA

By Andy Roth, Contributing Editor

New York, NY (Sports Network) - Let's take a look at two teams off to surprising but very different starts.

ATLANTA HAWKS

New general manager Danny Ferry made his presence felt very quickly in the offseason when he unloaded Joe Johnson and the remaining 4 years and $89.3 million on his contract in a deal with the Brooklyn Nets and traded Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz, who still had 2 years and nearly $16 million left on his.

But with the shedding of those contracts, many NBA observers believed the Hawks would take a step back, but that hasn't been the case so far. Their 12-6 record is the third best in the East and they're just 1 1/2 games back of the first place Heat in the Southeast division after losing in Miami on Monday, 101-92.

In Joe Johnson, the Hawks lost a six-time All Star, but he wasn't their best player. That title, I believe goes to Josh Smith, who I think you can make the argument is the most versatile power forward in the game.

He also happens to be an impending free agent, as are many of his teammates, so there are a whole lot of motivated players on this team.

"We've got a group of guys with chips on their shoulder and who have a lot to prove," Smith said. "We're out here every night with our hard hats on trying not to make excuses."

Despite the offseason overhaul and new additions such as Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, and Anthony Morrow, the Hawks meshed quickly and have played very unselfishly.

"It's all predicated on what we did off the court," Smith said. "We hung out (before the season), went to the movies together, went go-kart racing. It definitely brought us together."

It also hasn't hurt the Hawks that they have Al Horford back and healthy after he missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. The sixth-year center is currently averaging career highs in points (16.6) and rebounds (10.2), and along with Smith, who is blocking 2.5 shots per game, gives the Hawks a real defensive presence in the paint.

"We don't have quote-unquote great defenders at every position, but as a team we do a good enough job to get by and it's pointing in our advantage right now," Horford said.

The Hawks are allowing only 94 points per game, sixth best in the league, and Monday's loss to the Heat marked the first time this season that an opponent hit at least 50 percent of its shots from the field. They're also ranked second in forcing turnovers at 17.6 per game and are third in steals at with 9.2 per game.

And on the other end of the floor, the game is flowing much better without Joe Johnson, who can stagnate an offense with his isolations. The Hawks are fifth in the NBA with 22.8 assists per game and tied for seventh in field goal percentage at 45.5 percent.

"We have so many guys who can put the ball in the hole, especially on the perimeter," said Smith. "When guys are unselfish, you make the right plays and guys usually make the shots. When you share the ball, it rubs off and guys then want to help that person on the defensive end."

Even with the Hawks off to a surprisingly good start, Horford believes their best ball is still ahead of them.

"We haven't hit our peak yet as a team," he said. "I'm looking forward to us figuring some things out, especially on the offensive end, because once we start clicking, we're going to be even better."

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

The Lakers are a complete mess right now and the eventual return of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol might totally cure what ails them.

Nash, in particular, won't remedy the Lakers' defensive problems.

Last night's 100-94 loss in Cleveland was the Lakers' fifth in six games, dropping their record to 9-13, and leaving them 6 1/2 games back of the first- place Clippers in the Pacific Division.

In the last five defeats, they've given up just over 110 points per game. With the exception of the loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, each of those games were up for grabs in the second half, but the Lakers' defense was abysmal and was the main reason they came out on the short end.

The Lakers had a four point lead at home after three quarters against the Magic on Dec. 2, but were outscored 40-26 in the fourth.

The following game in Houston, they blew a 10-point lead going into the fourth, as the Rockets put up 34 fourth quarter points and won by two.

In the next loss to the Jazz, the defense was horrible throughout the game, as Utah beat the Lakers on their home court, 117-110. The Lakers scored 59 points in the second half, but gave up 57, and that wasn't good enough to make up for a nine point halftime deficit.

And in last night's loss to the Cavaliers, they played one good quarter of defense, limiting Cleveland to 14 points in the second. In the other three quarters they gave up 86 points, including 32 in the fourth.

With Nash sidelined, along with his backup Steve Blake, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris are handling the point guard position. That combo has had their problems defending the elite point guards, but that problem won't go away for the Lakers when Nash and Blake return.

As for Gasol, the big question regarding his return is how Mike D'Antoni will utilize him. Prior to being sidelined, Gasol was spending a lot of time on the perimeter and not much time in the low post, which didn't make him very happy, and apparently former Lakers great Magic Johnson.

Magic was very outspoken yesterday in how the Lakers coach should use the four-time All Star power forward.

"When Gasol was on that (low) block, he averaged 18 points, he shot 53 percent from the field and he still is the best passing big man in the game," Johnson said Tuesday. "But you have him at the free-throw line? That makes no sense. That's not his game."

"His game is to catch it on the low block, face his man, one dribble left or right. He's got great moves. But now all the blame is on his shoulders, like he's not performing well? He can't take that. That's not who he is."

"They've got to put him in a winning situation, because once Gasol starts to play well, I think the team will start to play well. Then you come in with Steve Nash. But you've got to get Gasol going. Gasol, to me, is the key to this whole thing. If you continue to have him at the 3-point line, he's not going to perform well."

Magic, like me, believes D'Antoni should play to his players' strength's, rather than have them conform to his system.

"I've gotta adjust my system a little bit if I'm the coach. That's all," Johnson said. "His system doesn't fit the talent that the Lakers have. You can't run with this team. Who are the runners? You've got one guy who can get up and down the court and that's Kobe (Bryant)."

12/12 13:45:58 ET