It’s a lot easier if you don’t try to look for explanations.
Win the next game, and you don’t have to worry about why a 23-point lead shrinks to seven in Game 1 or a nine-point lead with four minutes left morphs into a loss in Game 5. Win the next game, and head-slapping moments like losing three straight to an opponent missing its best player, only to turn around and go on a 19-0 run and win for only the second time in 12 road playoff games, become trivial.
The Hawks thrill us, aggravate us, confuse us, usually all in the same game. Sometimes all in the same quarter. But win Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks, and they will move on to the second round against Orlando, which is what we expected all along.
Just look at this as an unexpected detour. Ever take a summer vacation when somebody got lost and the family station wagon ended up near a sewage treatment facility? Or maybe just down the road from a water park? That’s the Hawks. One minute a sewage treatment facility, the next minute a water park.
“We can’t let ourselves get distracted Sunday like we have at times,” Josh Smith said. “We have to take over.”
Ah, if only they could follow scripts.
They deserved criticism for having to play a sixth game in Milwaukee. But they deserve praise for bringing the series back to Atlanta. We knew they had talent. It’s the intangibles that have come into question: resolve, desire, intelligence — particularly in those game-changing moments. They are what separate teams this time of year.
Coaching, too. Mike Woodson has been slapped around for perceptions that this team has been underachieving. But Friday in Milwaukee, he got his players to pull together and also changed things up defensively. A lot of attention was given to the Hawks switching to a zone defense after getting burned so often in previous games by Milwaukee’s guards, John Salmons and Brandon Jennings. But Smith estimated the team played zone for only “four or five minutes.”
The difference? Twofold. The first was mind-set. The Hawks fought to get around screens and avoid the switching that had been scorching them. The second was strategy. Bucks coach Scott Skiles said, “They confused us quite a bit.”
“They were showing zone and switching back to a man,” Jennings said. “I think it was more panic, being anxious, a little frustration because things weren’t going our way.”
It showed. Jennings and Salmons shot a combined 6-for-28 (21.4). In the previous three games, they were 43 for 84 (51.2).
The defense keyed the 19-0 run in the third quarter. A five-point deficit turned into a 14-point lead. By the time the Bucks’ heads stopped spinning, the lead was up to 20. Almost inevitably, Milwaukee rallied, trimming the lead to seven with five minutes left.
But what’s a Hawks’ game without a tease?
Defensively, they never stopped working. Offensively, they limited those stand-and-stare moments that so often get them into trouble.
“Even when we were losing and missing shots, we were playing the right way, which is what’s important,” Al Horford said. “I wish we could play like that every night. You move the ball, you share the ball, you have confidence in your teammates. Sometimes we get away from that. You can’t do it on your own.”
This is the only first-round series in the Eastern Conference still going. Orlando won in four. Cleveland and Boston each won in five. Maybe the Hawks are just trying to give everybody their money’s worth again. They did it two years ago, stretching the Boston Celtics to seven games, only to lose Game 7 by 34 points. They did it in last year’s opening round against Miami, winning the deciding game by 11.
Horford said the Hawks’ win Friday “really defines what our team is about.”
Go with it. It’s a lot easier that way.
Earlier Hawks posts