Seven months after they walked off this same court, losing to this same team, wondering if they could make moves to elevate themselves to higher ground, the Hawks met the Cleveland Cavaliers again Tuesday night.
Some went right. LeBron James looked ordinary, and Jamal Crawford again looked like the greatest offseason acquisition of the millennium.
Most went wrong. Joe Johnson hit his first four shots, then dropped into a black hole. Mike Bibby didn’t even have the first four shots to brag about. Collectively, Team New and Improved failed to score in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, which isn’t good when there’s only 12 minutes in a quarter.
You wanted a sign that there was something to look forward to in the playoffs. The Hawks instead gave you acid flashbacks to a 13-win team and Predrag Drobnjak. Bad things, man. They lost to a very average-looking Cleveland team 95-84 at sold-out Philips Arena.
So much buildup. So little to show for it.
If the Hawks don’t want everybody to quickly forget about their wonderful 21-8 start, they might want to come with a little better effort in the return match Wednesday night in Cleveland.
“I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to go win a game instead of just playing the way we know how to play,” Josh Smith said. “We definitely thought about this game too hard.”
Let’s put it another way: The wrong guys didn’t show up. Jamal Crawford poured in 26 points. That’s great for him and a testament to the strength of the Hawks’ bench. But when the sixth man leads you in scoring — and outscores the Hawks’ starting backcourt 26-17 — there’s a problem.
Bibby was 1-for-7 from the floor and, for the most part, invisible. And Joe? Oh, Joe.
He’s looking for a new contract, the kind of contract that validates him as one of the game’s elite players. But he’s going to need the performance to validate that status first. This is the kind of game that hurts him. Great players play great against great teams — not the Bobcats.
The Hawks ran their offense through Johnson on Tuesday. He responded like a souffle when somebody slams the door too hard. Poooof. After six minutes, he had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting. The Hawks led 18-10. He missed his next nine shots. He didn’t make another bucket until there were two minutes left in the game.
Let me repeat that: two minutes left in the game.
By then, his team had fallen behind hopelessly by 11 points, 89-78.
“I don’t know,” Johnson responded when asked what happened after his start. “Things just didn’t go my way after that I guess. It happens.”
That’s the problem.
The Hawks won 21 of their first 29 games this season. It was reason enough to believe that the improvements they made were legitimate. They were deep, versatile, talented. They played hard. They played defense. But Game No. 30 was different. They call these measuring stick games — the idea being to get measured, not get slapped by the stick.
In the playoffs last May, the Hawks eliminated Miami in the first round. They hoped to at least compete with Cleveland in the second round. Maybe even steal a game or two. But they never came close. The Cavs won the first two games at home by a combined 47 points, then returned to Atlanta and closed out a sweep with two wins.
This game was supposed to be different. It was. The Hawks were worse. The Cavs weren’t great — credit the Hawks’ defense somewhat for that — but they took over the game physically. Smith complained about some no-calls for “a couple of elbows, a couple of shots to the face.” But he wasn’t using that as an excuse.
“They’re a physical team and they brought it, and we didn’t respond,” he said. “Tomorrow night, we have to be the aggressors, we have to be physical.”
At least one thing will be different in Cleveland: the buildup.