Vivlamore reporting from Philips Arena. Here is my updated game story, with quotes, from tonight’s victory over the Clippers.
In his words, Joe Johnson “accidentally” made the biggest shot of a huge win.
The Hawks rose to the level of their competition — in a big way – for a 109-102 victory over the Clippers Tuesday in a game with major postseason implications for both teams. The Hawks’ battle for home-court advantage against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoff race comes down to the regular season-finales Thursday. The Hawks need a win over the Mavericks to maintain their one-game lead over the Celtics, who defeated the Heat Tuesday. The Hawks would also clinch home court with a Celtics loss to the Bucks.
Johnson’s 3-pointer with 1:28 remaining brought the Philips Arena crowd to its collective feet. However, his desperation 3-pointer with 38 seconds remaining, with the shot clock expiring, was the final dagger in the impressive win. Johnson controlled the rebound of a missed shot but didn’t realize it had not touched the rim and the clock continued to wind down. He heaved a shot from near the sideline that banked in as the buzzer sounded.
“I looked up and saw one point something on the clock and I just really want to heave it up there and at least hit the rim,” Johnson said. “I accidentally made it.”
The Hawks (39-26), winners of eight of their past 11, avenged a March loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles. They have now won three straight against the Clippers at Philips Arena.
“The basketball gods were with us tonight,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “I’m glad he had the awareness to peak up at the clock because that could have been a shot-clock violation very easily. That was a huge shot.”
The Clippers (40-25) failed in an attempt to tie the Lakers for the Pacific Division lead and the third seed in the Western Conference playoff race. They lost for only the second time in the past eight games and are 14-4 since March 24.
Johnson, who became the sixth leading scorer in franchise history, led the Hawks with 28 points. He surpassed Kevin Willis and now has 10,591 points with the Hawks. Next up is John Drew (12,621 points). Jeff Teague added 19 points, including the final six points from the free-throw line. Josh Smith had 18 points.
Blake Griffin led the Clippers with a game-high 36 points as Los Angeles battled back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit and got as close as four points in the fourth quarter. Chris Paul added 34 points as one two Clippers scored in double-figures – a key to the Hawks win. Griffin did most of the damage early as the Hawks defended him straight up, mostly with Smith. He scored 22 first-half points, tying the Thunders’ Kevin Durant for the most points scored in a half against the Hawks this season. Griffin scored the Clippers first eight points of the game and 16 of their first 21 points.
“The focus and the commitment of our guys not to get discouraged early with Blake Griffin,” Drew said of the key to victory. “We made the decision to defend him the way we defended him and he made shots. We could have very easily panicked at that point, double team and try to take the ball out of his hands. We maintained our focus as far as what our game plan and game strategy was against him. … He made jump shots and we made the decision to live with that.”
Griffin and Paul combined for 70 of the Clippers’ 102 points.
“We saw their numbers but we saw everybody else’s numbers,” Smith said. “Being able to cut everybody else’s water off was definitely beneficial. We didn’t want everyone else to get into a rhythm.
The Hawks closed the third quarter on a 15-2 run to take an 85-72 lead going into the final quarter. Smith scored 10 points in the quarter, including a crowd-raising dunk off a Marvin Williams miss. Teague added nine points in the third and blocked a Paul layup attempt. Teague later sent a Caron Butler shot four rows deep into the crowd in the fourth quarter.
The Hawks led 52-50 at the half by outscoring the Clippers by seven points in the second quarter. Williams came off the bench and scored 11 points during the quarter, nine in an 18-4 Hawks run. A key defensive play during the run came with Ivan Johnson blocked a Nick Young dunk attempt that started a fast break.
Williams, who scored 29 points Sunday against the Knicks, said he was determined to be more aggressive in an effort to get going early. He led the Hawks bench, which finished with 32 combined points, most in the second and third quarters as they overcame a deficit and handed a lead back to the starters.
“Those guys came in and controlled the tempo,” said Johnson, who had 15 first-half points. “They controlled the whole second quarter and that was big. Then they controlled the third quarter as well. In the fourth, we were able to come back in and try to put it away. Our bench won the MVP tonight.
The Hawks have shot over 50 percent or more from the field in their past three games.
“With both teams playing for something – we’ve been playing pretty good lately but we have not been finishing games – coming down the stretch of tonight’s game I could tell our guys were mentally focused,” Drew said. “… It was a game that had a playoff feel to it. With the game having the type of meaning for both ball clubs, we wanted to bring our best effort. And I thought our guys did a good job with that.”