While the Atlanta Hawks continue to say all of the right things in the aftermath of learning that Al Horford would be out for what is likely the remainder of the season, there is a harsh reality that may hit home as the season unfolds. Forget Horford's career marks of 12.8 points and 9.4 rebounds because his value goes way beyond that.
Since being selected as the No. 3 pick by the Hawks in the 2007 draft, Horford has filled a multitude of roles that often go beyond the court. He is the ultimate glue guy on a team that can at times use a lot of glue. When Atlanta is playing its best, they are a beautiful thing to watch. When they aren't playing well they often look like a mix-match of parts pulling in three or four different directions. When that occurs it usually falls on Horford to pull things back together.
A great example already occurred this season after the Hawks suffered an embarrassing home loss to a Miami Heat team that was without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. After that game a clearly agitated Horford had some pretty harsh comments following that game, showing he's one Hawks player that isn't afraid of calling out a teammate. His championship pedigree from his Florida days can't be ignored.
After learning that the injury would keep him out, Horford wasted little time in putting the responsibility of leading the team on Joe Johnson and Josh Smith.
"All of the guys have to raise their game, help a little bit, and it all starts with Joe and Josh."
Thursday night the Hawks came together to deliver a beat-down to the Charlotte Bobcats just as Horford described. The game was a collective effort that was led by its two stars in Smith and Johnson, who combined to score 53 points and grab 21 rebounds. A nice way to start the post-Horford stretch to the season, but it is also worth noting that it came against a Bobcats team that is already showing signs of mailing in the season, according to head coach Paul Silas.
There are much stiffer tests awaiting, and the challenge for this group of Hawks is to stick together without their glue. Johnson is a quiet player who would much rather lead by example, and Smith is an emotional player who when good is inspiring and when bad is depressing. Those two will have to find a middle ground and a way to be productive when things turn to chaos around them. Its one thing to perform against the Charlotte's and New Jersey's but playing against Chicago and Miami is a whole different situation.
One thing about this Hawks team is that they often respond the best when they have been given no chance. Since the injury announcement, Atlanta has been written off on more than one occasion, despite the win over the Bobcats. Perhaps being forced to step up in Horford's absence will be what propels Smith to realize his All-Star potential. He has certainly performed at that level over the last five games, averaging 24 points and 8.8 rebounds.
Even without Horford, Atlanta should still have enough talent to remain a playoff team in the Eastern Conference provided they don't suffer another setback with a sustained injury to a key player. Atlanta played Thursday night without Kirk Hinrich (shoulder), Marvin Williams (ankle) and Tracy McGrady (back). Each of those players has been reliable this season with the exception of Hinrich who has yet to suit up but is expected to provide some quality depth at both backcourt positions. So Atlanta can expect a shot in the arm when they get those players back in the lineup. Atlanta may not be competing for home court advantage in the playoffs any longer without Horford but still seem like a solid bet when put up against teams like the Milwaukee Bucks who are currently 4-6.
One thing is certain, things just got a lot harder for Atlanta without Al Horford and the thoughts of reaching an Eastern Conference Final have now all but disappeared.
For more on Al Horford and the Atlanta Hawks, be sure to check out Peachtree Hoops. For more news and analysis from around the NBA, check out SB Nation's NBA Hub.