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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

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