When a decidedly more talented team suddenly loses consecutive games to an opponent that has less size, less skill and it was assumed less hope for postseason survival, there really are only two possibilities:
– The better team is not playing as hard as it should.
– The better team is not playing as smart as it should.
Everything else is window dressing.
For most of their first two playoff games against Milwaukee, the Hawks had us wondering how high their ceiling was. For the next two games, they reminded us where the floor is. It’s one thing to lose game three. It’s another to trail, 31-13, 10 minutes into the game. It’s one thing not to sweep the undermanned and Munchkin-like Bucks in the first round. It’s another to keep suffering brain cramps, go weak at the knees every time they walk into an opponent’s arena and lose twice.
Despite 53 wins, the Hawks have not been universally embraced in Atlanta. This is why. If they want to be viewed as something special, this would be a good time to present a counter-argument to what so many are saying about them. They drift in and out of consciousness. They get outworked. They get outplayed. They get outcoached.
Know what athletes hate hearing more than anything else? That they have no heart. Imagine how that accusation stings when it comes from another former athlete.
Chris Webber nailed it. He was in studio on TNT’s NBA wrap-up show Monday night. The panel was discussing the significance of the Hawks’ consecutive losses in Milwaukee. When somebody pointed out that their regular season record had improved every year, Webber chimed in.
“The size of your heart doesn’t show up on paper,” he said.
When the remark was relayed to Joe Johnson Tuesday, he didn’t dispute it. Fact is, he amplified on it.
“It’s true — it doesn’t show up on paper,” he said. “We haven’t played with that [heart]. We complain and whine too much and it gets you nowhere, instead of just going out and fighting through it. Whatever they do to us, do it back to them. Instead, we just complain to the refs. It’s not like they’re going to change the call. So you might as well just get back on D and keep playing.”
This isn’t the regular season. Fifty-three wins is so yesterday. The Hawks have evolved to the point that their season should be defined by playoffs, not a big win over the Celtics in January.
Look around the Eastern Conference. Orlando swept Charlotte. Cleveland and Boston won their respective series in five games.
The Hawks? They’re looking at this implausible string of words: must-win against the Bucks.
Lose game five at Philips Arena and they go back to Milwaukee facing possibly elimination Friday. Outside of Atlanta, they have been playoff road kill the last three years: 1-10. They can win. They should win. But what about the last two games gives you confidence?
Johnson again: “We don’t play with the same energy and the passion as we do at home. It kills us, man. I thought we had passed this step of immaturity on the road, but we haven’t.”
At 2-0, they thought they were the new Hawks. At 2-2, they realize they’re frighteningly close to the old Hawks.
“I’m surprised,” Johnson said. “I just think we got a little bit ahead of ourselves. We took care of business the first two games and we all thought we were going to go up there and do the same.”
Johnson said after game four, “It seems like we just don’t have the toughness.”
Josh Smith said Tuesday that if he were a fan watching the Hawks, he would think, “That we’re a team that’s still growing and we still have a lot to learn.”
They were supposed to be past this.