BOSTON -- The small white sign near the door of the Celtics' locker room read:
INDIVIDUALS WIN GAMES
Across the hallway Thursday night sat Hawks center Al Horford in the visitors' locker room as an athletic trainer wrapped ice bags around each of his hands, both sore and swollen from recent poundings under the basket.
"These teams realize how to be on top and the way to win," Horford said of the Celtics, as well as the Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Jazz, all of whom have victimized the Hawks this season. "That's where we have to get to."
The frustrated Hawks were 16-11 after their fourth loss -- a 102-90 defeat to the East-leading Celtics -- in nine games without All-Star guard Joe Johnson, who had been shooting 40.9 percent (an eight-year low) before he had surgery on Dec. 2 to remove a "loose body" from his right elbow. Also missing from the Hawks' roster in Boston was reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jamal Crawford, who was sidelined by a sore back. And to cap it all off, forward Josh Smith came up empty, turning in a horrid 0-for-8, one-point effort.
Put it all together and you're left with a team that will be relying more than ever on Horford, the 24-year-old All-Star center who is the closest thing they have to a vocal leader.
"One of the true qualities of a leader is they're not afraid to step on any toes," first-year coach Larry Drew said of Horford. "He is starting to show that, and he does it in a way that he's not trying to belittle his teammates. But I like the fact that he makes it known -- if it's a bad shot, if you're not hustling back, he does it in a way that a leader would do it, and he's not afraid to speak up."
Horford has been contending for a second straight All-Star invitation while averaging 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists as an undersized 6-foot-10 center. At times this season he has shown versatility by shifting to power forward -- his natural position -- but the Hawks need more than numbers from him. They're counting on Horford to help channel Smith's potential and elevate the overall performance of a 53-win team that has been in the doldrums since its humiliating four-game sweep by Orlando in the second round of the playoffs last season, when the Magic clobbered them by a record 25.3 points per game.
Foul trouble limited Horford to two points in eight first-half minutes Thursday, and he played just well enough over the final two quarters -- finishing with eight points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes overall -- to join Marvin Williams (26 points) and Jeff Teague (18) in keeping the Hawks within two points early in the fourth. But they were outworked by an elder Celtics team coming off a frantic win the previous night in New York and minus its top three centers (leaving none other than Turkish rookie Semih Erden) and two point guards (forcing Nate Robinson to play 41 minutes in place of Rajon Rondo).
There was nothing any of the Hawks could do to squeeze energy out of Smith, who was cajoled at halftime by Horford and Drew. "I've never had one of those games since my second year in the league," Smith said. "I got down on myself too early because things weren't falling."
The Hawks hope Horford will help Smith stamp out his erratic play and realize his potential as an explosive playmaker at both ends of the court. They arrived in Atlanta from opposite ends of the NBA feeder system: The 6-9 Smith was an AAU prodigy who at 18 was selected with the 17th pick by the Hawks in 2004; Horford helped lead Florida to two NCAA championships before the Hawks drafted him No. 3 in 2007.
"Josh was so talented coming out of high school, obviously he was ready," Horford said. "I needed a little more time. For me going to college, I really learned a lot about winning and playing team ball and things like that. That's where I come from -- trying to help us to be the best team that we can be, and knowing that I have to sacrifice or give up some things in order for that to happen. I think Josh wants to win as well, and we're just working at it together to do it."
Smith had been performing like an All-Star candidate -- posting 16.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.2 blocks -- before his awful performance Thursday. "When he's playing the right way, we're a very tough team to beat," Horford said. "He's evolved so much ever since I've been here. At first you could say he was a little bit reckless, wild, throwing passes that weren't there. But he's getting better at that. Everybody makes mistakes during the game, but it's been a [180-degree turn] with him since I've been here."
Drew has installed an early-offense series designed to reduce one-on-one play and inspire Smith, Horford and Johnson -- who returned to the Hawks on Friday about a week and a half earlier than expected -- to keep the ball moving instead of reverting to the dribble, which was a stagnancy of previous Hawks teams. But tactics can accomplish only so much: The Hawks have yet to put together an inspired run of performances, despite their favorable record overall.
Horford has always had leadership qualities. "For some reason, ever since I can recall I've always been about the team and about making sure our guys stay together and stuff like that," he said. That perspective was broadened by his championship years at Florida, though he found it difficult to transfer the same motivational tactics to the NBA. "In the NBA, everybody has their own little world, and I really had to adjust to that. In college, you can hold guys more accountable. Here as a rookie, I really didn't want to step on anybody's toes."
The Hawks need to show more spirit and heart, because waiting for Johnson to provide inspiration isn't a likely formula -- he isn't particularly vocal, after all.
"Mostly I do my stuff by example," said Horford. "But when I need to speak out, I say something and guys listen." They need it now.
Donald T. Sterling, owner of the Clippers, you are steadily turning into a hero to some of your fellow NBA owners. For years you have been ridiculed as the worst owner in sports for failing to win more than one playoff series in 29 seasons of ownership. Now, other owners who lose money year after year look to you -- in true spite of the fans' feelings -- as an example of someone who rejuvenates his team through the draft while keeping the payroll relatively low and ultimately profitable.
With the league locked in a fight with the players over a new collective bargaining agreement, many owners appear to feel resentful that players are afforded 57 percent of revenues. That means you are likely to hear encouragement from your fellow owners for heckling Davis and other Clippers players from your courtside seat. They won't follow your example because they're too worried about public opinion or the ability to recruit talent in the future, or the negative impact on their team's fragile ecosystem. But you've never worried much about those things, have you? Lucky you.
Carmelo Anthony, there is nothing wrong with exercising your right to sign with the team of your choosing should you become a free agent after this season. Along the same lines, there will be nothing wrong with your decision to sign the three-year, $65 million extension offered by the Nuggets, if you so decide.
The problem is that you want both the extension and the choice of your next team while you remain under contract to Denver. You are entitled to try to gain both simultaneously, but the current rules of the NBA don't owe you both.
The Nuggets have to believe you ultimately won't turn down the extension. They also don't want to be limited to talking trade with the Knicks. If by February you haven't signed on for three more years, and the Nuggets still aren't interested in what the Knicks are offering, then why shouldn't they move you for expiring money and draft picks to a contender that will rent you out for the remainder of the season? That's the risk you're running.
As I see it, that's not such a huge risk. So you may wind up playing for another team with playoff hopes: Maybe that team will help create new options to sign-and-trade you to the franchise of your choosing.
Yao Ming, you have done more than anyone could ask. You have put yourself at risk to injury by playing practically year-round in order to satisfy your commitments to China and the NBA. You have been a tireless and patient statesman of the highest order.
Now it is time for you to decide what is best for you. Never mind your other commitments as a public figure -- you have fulfilled all of those. You are 30 years old and it is time to decide what you want. How important is it for you to attempt yet another comeback from the latest stress fracture that has been pounded into your left ankle?
If you are all played out, then you should retire with no apologies to anyone.
But if you believe you can recover, and if you love the game enough to try again, then you should try. You're still young and you owe it to yourself to find out how good you can be. You've been through a lot of pain and frustration already, and no one will blame you if enough is enough. But if you're intending to call it quits, wouldn't you have done so before this latest injury?
"I would be lying if I said I didn't think about [running an NBA team someday] and how I would do things. I think every agent thinks that they could do a better job than the people that are doing it. But I never really pursued it, because I didn't think you could do your job as a player representative if in the back of your mind you were angling for relationships that could lead you to the position that I'm in now.
"It happened in a bizarre way. I had known [Suns owner] Robert Sarver through my dealings with Grant, and when Steve Kerr decided to leave [as Suns GM last spring] I told Grant that it would be important for us to try to participate, if welcomed, in some kind of search for the general manager -- to the extent that Robert was willing to hear a player's point of view, I was happy to vet candidates with him.
"So I called Robert and somehow from those conversations evolved a job interview. And one day I said to him, 'This is starting to sound like a job interview, I haven't had a job interview in 35 years.' And that's when I immediately shifted gears and said I need to make sure I'm ethically on solid ground with the players.
"First I called Grant, and if Grant had said 'I don't want you to pursue it,' then that would have been the end of it right there. He thought it was amusing and interesting, so I pursued it and then disclosed it to all of my clients as the thing became more real. I got tremendous reaction from every one of my clients, they thought it was great. They were surprised, but we were all surprised.
"I represented 18 players, and the ones I was most worried about were the ones that were in free agency. So I told Robert I wouldn't even talk to him until Ray Allen and Luke Ridnour were taken care of.
"The most immediate issue that I had to disentangle myself from was conversations that I had been having about the possibility of Hedo coming here. I immediately got out of the middle of that and didn't participate in it either way, and I let my [law] partner, Jim Tanner, take over. I'd come up with the concept of an amend-and-trade, which was to adjust Hedo's compensation in his last year to facilitate [his trade out of Toronto] and those were conversations I had had with other teams as well as with [Raptors president] Bryan Colangelo, because the situation in Toronto was just a bad marriage on both sides and I was trying to find a way to get out from under it. Other than the initial concept, the details were worked out between Jim and Robert, and I didn't express an opinion about whether it was a good idea or a bad idea either way.
"I'm here because Robert had a vision that you needed to have a bifurcated front office, where you had someone with my experience as a negotiator, a business person and a manager of people, someone who could understand the legal implications of the cap and the rules and all of the processes. And then you also needed to have someone who I describe as a pure basketball genius."
"And the only way this would have worked was if you had an owner who could see that you have two roles that historically have been played by the same person. Time will tell whether it's a good model or not, but I give him credit for having the foresight to see that, especially with the new collective bargaining agreement.
"The biggest change in perspective for me is that you can be a fan again. You can root. There's no doubt now who I want to win every single game. In the past, if Tim Duncan was playing Grant Hill, I was neutral in my heart. It was like picking one son over another. And so that part of it today is fun and very, very different."
"He knows our stuff better, he understands our defensive concepts. Offensively, we're going to be fine. Hell, I think in the four games [started by Robinson] we've actually scored more when Nate's in the lineup. Defensively is where you're more concerned because of Nate's size. His effort's been great; it's just his size has an impact on you. And then all of the injuries are the problem -- Nate's going to have to play a ton of minutes, and if he gets in foul trouble or anything, that's where we're really going to struggle."
"Revenues last year were the highest in the NBA historically, even in the midst of a recession. This year looks like it's going to be another record for revenues. TV ratings are up, ad revenues for TV are up. GMs are making $3 million to $5 million a year and coaches are making up to $10 million a year -- and how is that the players' fault?"
"I was in pain but I had those happy pills -- oxycontin -- which you don't want to get addicted to, but they definitely work, I'll tell you that. I took one of those pills every day for about a week. Then it started to get better. Once the cast came off, my wrist was killing me because it was immobilized for so long. I couldn't bend my fingers, and my elbow was stuck in this same position even without the cast."
"It started right after Munich," he said. "It was, what, 1970?"
The attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at Munich happened during the Olympic Games in 1972.
"That's right, '72," said Casspi, who was born 16 years later in Holon, Israel. "We got a terror attack and since then every Israeli team or national team came with security. For me as an Israeli, I played on the national teams since I was 14 years old and it is something I grew up with."
Casspi joined the top Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv as a 17-year-old in 2005-06, and he would travel throughout the Euroleague with Maccabi for two more seasons before the Kings drafted him No. 23 in 2009. On all of their trips outside Israel, the team was accompanied by multiple armed security guards.
"I know it was weird for the American players to come to Israel and go, for example, to Greece or Turkey, and be with security and get some advice before the trip and during the trip about what's going on with the security matters at that point in time," he said. "For me it was regular, but when you see other teams travel and you don't see security like that, then you understand you're in a different situation.
"Besides that, it's not like you have stuff you can't do. Guys are living their lives, even on the road. If they want to go eat dinner at the restaurant, they can go. They just have to be cautioned and have security with you.
"It makes you stronger as a person, no doubt. It makes you realize you live in a different country and there are a lot of terrorists in the world that want to hurt you, and you have to take caution and be ready. But it makes you tougher. You know back in 2000 we had the Intifada, when we had guys getting bombs in the [public] buses."
He learned to block out the pressures, to focus on each game at the expense of other concerns.
"You get to a point where you forget everything outside and you just play basketball," he said. "Don't take anything for granted, play every day and have fun."
As comfortable as he is today in sunny Sacramento, Casspi has not felt liberated by his departure from the pressures of Israel. The opposite is true.
"Home for me always will be Israel," he said. "That's where I want to live when I'm done. I'm playing basketball in the United States, but I'm thinking about home, too."
He returned home last summer and discovered he needed a full week to readjust. "Over there, life is faster," said Casspi. Faster-paced than in America? "It's faster there," he said, nodding quickly with a smile. "Faster, yes."
Thanks to hoopstats.com for this breakdown ...
1. Celtics (10-2)
While we're at it, here is how each team has performed against opponents with losing records. The Clippers, Timberwolves and Nets have played the most games against winning opponents, but as you'll see below they haven't done so well against the NBA weaklings either.
1. Bulls (11-0)