HAWKKSVILLE - They didn’t even make it to the bus before vowing to return.
“Don’t make any plans for Sunday,” Heat center Jermaine O’Neal told me. “I promise you, we’ll be back here Sunday.”
Little did he know that Heat swingman James Jones had already cautioned me about looking past anything other than a Game 7 Sunday between the Hawks and Heat in this first round playoff series.
“We’ll be back,” a smiling Jones said after the Hawks smashed the Heat 106-91 in Game 5 Wednesday night at Philips Arena. “We’re going to go back home to handle our business [in Game 6 Friday night] and we’ll see you back here this weekend.”
I’ve known both O’Neal and Jones since we all lived and worked in Indianapolis, I was the beat writer and they were toiling for what used to be an Eastern Conference power (the franchise formerly known as the Indiana Pacers). I know they’re competitors and they feel, just as the Hawks do, that they are the better team.
So I don’t dismiss what they say.
And in a series that has been nothing but a parade of blowouts, why should the Heat feel any other way?
While the Heat is aiming for a return to A-Town, the Hawks are locked in on doing Friday night what they did Monday to turn the series around – winning again on the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 4. ”Now comes the hard part,” Hawks forward Josh Smith told me after Game 5. “When somebody is on the doorstep of getting eliminated, that’s when it gets real. We just have to go back down there to Miami and handle business. We have to go down there with a business attitude and play our game.”
AFTER TWO STRAIGHT WINS it’s clear that the Hawks’ “game” includes whipping the Heat in all the categories that count.
They have outrebounded the Heat 77-62 since the start of Game 4. They’ve had 38 assist to the Heat’s 28, outscored them 72-48 in the paint, whipped them 32-18 on second chance points and 27-10 in fast break points. Toss in the Hawks’ defensive performance (the Heat have shot .428 from the floor and .285 from beyond the 3-point) and it’s no wonder the Hawks have a chance to eliminate the Heat Friday night.
“I think defense is the key for us,” Zaza Pachulia said. “We played pretty good defense (Wednesday), I think. We know how to win. When everybody does the little things, we’re a tough team to beat. And in the last two games, we really did those things.”
NO PLAYER WILL HAVE MORE HEAT ON HIS SHOULDERS (literally and figuratively) than Pachulia will Friday night in Game 6. If Al Horford can’t go (he walked out of the arena under his own power after Game 5 but was wearing an ice compression boot on his right leg after suffering a “mild ankle sprain” before halftime) Pachulia will have to fill the void at center.
Pachulia has all the experience necessary for the job. And it was his inside work in Game 4 (18 rebounds and 12 points) that pushed the Hawks over the top in that game. And he’s still sporting that black eye he earned in Game 3, a badge of honor he wears better than any of his fly Italian suits.
“I’ve been coming in and replacing Al the whole year,” Pachulia said. “But hopefully, he’s going to be back soon, because we really need him. In the playoffs, sometimes guys get in foul trouble or whatever, so we need everybody. But I’ve been in this situation before, so it’s nothing new.”
THERE IS NO NEWS YET ON AL, either, so relax. The Hawks practice this morning at 11 and the first real update won’t come until after they have finished. The biggest test will be to see how Horford’s ankle responds to the team flight to Miami, provided Horford makes that trip.
Horford tried to come back after halftime last night but said he simply couldn’t do it. Playing without both Horford and Marvin Williams, who is probably out for the rest of this series, is going to be a monstrous task if the Hawks have to do so in Games 6 and 7. I’m not sure how Hawks coach Mike Woodson will scramble things up to make it happen, but it’ll be interesting to see what transpires next.
In today’s edition of the SOUTH FLORIDA REPORT, our friends from Miami are showing no mercy for the home team.
My man Israel Gutierrez of the Miami Herald challenged the Heat to answer the Hawks’ physical nature in Game 6 or hit South Beach for vacation.
Greg Stoda of the Palm Beach Post questioned the Heat’s sincerity with all the elbows, hard fouls and tough-guy posturing that went on in Game 5.
And my man Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel likened last night’s MMA action to the Heat-Knicks battles of yesteryear. And he would know since he’s covered the Heat from their first day of existence.
Game 6 ought to be a fantastic mess.