(UPDATED AT 10:58)
MILWAUKEE — One game after humiliation, one loss before elimination, in a game on the road, they showed us something. Not talent, but resolve. Not finesse, but determination.
Not the things that crush a team’s salary structure, just the things that crush opponents in the postseason.
“Now nobody expects us to do it,” the Hawks’ Jamal Crawford was saying before Friday’s playoff game against Milwaukee. “So maybe the pressure changes a little bit.”
It came off as a wonderful pre-game rationalization by a struggling player for a desperate team. But maybe he was right. After hanging with Milwaukee for one ugly half, the Hawks started to look again like the team that won 53 games during the regular season and the first two of these playoffs.
Playing as if somebody suddenly pulled needles out of a voodoo doll, the Hawks went on runs of 19-0 and 27-2 in the third quarter. They built a 20-point lead, held on during the almost inevitable Bucks’ rally and eventually put the clamps on an 83-69 win at the Bradley Center. Crawford led them with 24 points.
Their season is not over. By virtue of only their second road playoff victory in the past 12 tries, there will be a Game 7 on Sunday at Philips Arena. Recent history should prevent anybody from making a prediction.
“I don’t know, man — I could care less what people expect and what they don’t expect,” Joe Johnson said when asked about the team being written off after Wednesday’s meltdown in the final four minutes of Game 5, when the Hawks’ let a nine-point lead slip away and lost at home. “It’s about us players and the coaches and everybody in this locker room. There’s nobody else. As long as we stick together, I think we can overcome anything.
“We’re professionals. This is what we do. We lost a game at home, and now we have to go get it back.”
They were words you wanted to here, and the way you wanted to hear them.
The Hawks played a few minutes of zone defense for the first time in the series. But the difference Friday wasn’t a change in philosophy as much as it was a change in effort. Milwaukee shot only 32.9 percent (25 for 76) and missed 11 consecutive attempts at one point in the third quarter. The Bucks had some open looks, but not nearly as many as in the previous three games, thanks to players fighting through screens. Rookie guard Brandon Jennings was only 4-for-15 and didn’t make a shot until there was 1:41 left in the third.
“Guys just got over screens,” Josh Smith said. “We really didn’t have to help [with switches]. It was just the will. Desire. We wanted to win this game.”
In the previous three games, the undermanned Bucks showed more resolve, more heart, more intelligence. Before Game 6, they established that they could even sing better: Stackhouse sang the National Anthem. (What were the Hawks going to do, boo?)
The Hawks trailed 34-31 at the intermission. They weren’t fluid. We saw too much of what Mike Woodson didn’t want to see. The Bucks closing off the angles and not allowing the Hawks to drive into the lane. Johnson turning over the ball on the dribble. Marvin Williams and Al Horford both misreading teammates’ next moves and passing to air. Mike Bibby throwing the ball into Smith’s back on a fast break.
But something strange happened in the second half. But after Carlos Delfino made a jumper to open the third quarter and give Milwaukee a 36-31 lead, it was like somebody changed the channel to a different game. The Hawks scored the next 19 points to go up by 14, 50-36. The lead soon mushroomed to 20. They shared the ball on offense. They clamped down on defense. Milwaukee couldn’t hit anything.
Almost inevitably, the Bucks rallied and whittled the lead down to seven. But just as everybody started having Game 5 flashbacks, Smith blocked Stackhouse at one end and Johnson made a jumper at the other. The Hawks displayed all of those intangibles that seemingly had left their locker room.
“I wish we could play like that all the time,” Al Horford said.
Yes. But at least we didn’t have to wait until next season to see it.