Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe if a team comes out and blows the doors off an opponent in the playoff opener, it gets lulled into a false sense of security. It takes a 22-point lead at the end of the first half, makes a sandwich in the second, rolls to an easy victory and starts to think, “Bucks, Magic, Cavaliers: You are mere specks of dust on my cashmere on the way to the finals. Away with you.”
Well, there is good news. The Hawks are 1-0 in this postseason — and there is no chance of them getting cocky before Game 2.
They led Milwaukee (minus Andrew Bogut) by as much as 23 points in the second quarter, only to see that spread shrink to seven in the fourth. They settled for a 102-92 win at Philips Arena.
Victory and humility can be a wonderful pairing in the playoffs.
“It’s a good thing,” Al Horford said later. “It keeps us on edge. Last year against Miami we blew them out in the first game, and I think guys got a little complacent. They won the second game and made the series tough for us.”
Good memory. The Hawks dumped the Heat by 26 points in that series opener, then actually dropped the next two games of the series. It took seven games, but the Hawks finally advanced.
This series isn’t expected to go seven games. Expectations are higher. The Hawks won 53 games. Maybe network executives already are planning marketing campaigns around LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard for the Eastern Conference finals. But Atlanta kinda thinks this thing is wide open.
When players arrived in the dressing room for practice Friday, each had a photo copy of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is given to the league champion, taped to their dressing cubicle.
Coach Mike Woodson also has a miniature version of the trophy on his desk. He brought it into the locker room Friday and put it on a ledge, just below the white board, for his pep talk.
“He basically said, ‘This is what we’re here for,’” guard Mike Bibby said.
“What are you in it for if you don’t have big dreams?” said Josh Smith. “You’ve got to think the unthinkable. That’s how you’re going to be successful: not just going in thinking you’re going to win a series or two. When you’re in the postseason, you’re in there for one reason, and that’s to win a ring.”
That’s how the Hawks looked at the outset Saturday. They ran and jammed and stuffed the ball inside, taking advantage of Bogut’s absence. They shot nearly 62 percent in the first half (26-of-42). Milwaukee also took 42 shots, but made only 16. Actually, Brandon Jennings made eight of 14. The rest of the Bucks made eight of 28.
“We played as good a first half as we played all year,” Woodson said.
But in the second half, the Bucks’ defense toughened in the middle. The Hawks had a hard time adjusting and cooled off just enough to make it a game. Only some timely jumpers by Mike Bibby (19 points on 8-of-9 shooting) and a couple of defensive stops prevented catastrophe. Jennings finished with 34 points. But he had 32 points through three quarters before being held to a deuce in the fourth on 1-of-5 shooting.
So the Hawks made two statements: 1) They can be really good; 2) They can be really average.
This kind of thing can create doubts. Perhaps that’s why there are still some disbelievers in this city. Maybe that’s why there were a couple of thousand empty seats in the upper deck, even though it was announced as a sellout. Right up to game time, there were tickets for sale on the Web site, StubHub.com, for as low as 89 cents in the upper level.
That’s right: 89 cents. Maybe it was Throwback Night?
“Wow — 89 cents. Really?” said Smith.
He said he noticed the empty seats, but added, “I hope next game they’re filled.”
But he was more concerned about the game.
“We have to come back and play with that same sense of urgency we played with in the first half,” he said.
Humility shouldn’t be an issue.
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