(Updated: 10:45 p.m.)
ORLANDO – The Hawks have played like a case study for an abnormal psychology class all season, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this.
They watched the opposing center beat them up for 31 points in the first half but didn’t blink. They hit only 8 of 22 shots in the first quarter, then morphed into something unfamiliar and wondrous (24 for 33 in the next two quarters). They took an 18-point lead on the road against a favored team that humiliated them a year ago and didn’t fold, like they had so often this year.
OK. Maybe you can be a little surprised.
In coach Larry Drew’s first playoff game as head coach, the Hawks took game one of their playoff series with the Orlando Magic 103-93 before a stunned Magic crowd at the Amway Center, and probably a stunned crowd of Hawks fans watched on television back in Atlanta.
Turns out there is hope after all.
So this is what it feels like.
Quoth Josh Smith, “We played with so much passion and desire, we willed this game.”
I know what you’re thinking. But it could be the up-and-down Hawks actually might do something special this postseason?
Expect nothing. Just let this mystery continue to unfold.
In game one of their second-round playoff series against Orlando last year, the Hawks trailed by 20 points at halftime and lost by 43 (114-71). The four-game sweep by the Magic was the most lopsided in NBA playoff history (four wins by a composite 101 points.
Not only did they win Saturday, they did so despite 46 points by Dwight Howard, feel proud of the way they beat him up.
It’s not every year a team starts the regular season with a six-game winning streak and ends it with a six-game losing streak. (Nothing like keeping you guessing.) It’s not every year a team makes the playoffs but is outscored. (The Hawks were the NBA’s only winning franchise with a negative point differential.)
They lost a home game to New Orleans by 41 points. They lost two other home games by at over 30 and nine overall by over 20 points. And yet, the Hawks beat Chicago and Boston and Orlando three out of four.
The late-season slide could at least in part be attributed to a players knowing that they were pretty much locked into the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed.
Now, if this was a team with any kind of a playoff resume, that wouldn’t be a problem. But teams like the Hawks don’t have a history of just turning it on in the postseason, and that’s something even coach Drew was concerned about. “I hope that’s the case,” Drew said before the game when asked about his team flipping a switch. “As long as I’ve been in the league, I’ve seen teams do it and I’ve seen teams that aren’t able to do it. Judging by what I’ve seen from our group, we’ve shown an ability to do that. I think it’s a little dangerous.”
But the Hawks shot 58 percent after the first quarter (30 for 52). They built the lead to 18 points at 91-73 with 8:44 left, saw it dwindle to 11, then nine at 94-83. But a jumper by Joe Johnson (25 points) and a dunk by Smith to finish a fast break cooled Orlando’s rally.
Nothing worked early in the first half against Howard. He had 31 points – the sting of which was diminished by the fact the Hawks led anyway, 55-48. Collins had two fouls early and then came out. He was replaced by Zaza Pachulia, who quickly was called for two fouls and came out. Howard did much of his damage against the non-dynamic duo of Etan Thomas and Josh Powell.
Howard clearly was getting irritated by the mugging. In the third quarter, he threw what appeared to be an intentional head-butt while backing into Collins, who hit the floor.
Collins drew his sixth foul with 6:33 left and the Hawks up by 17. I’ve never seen somebody get so many high-fives after six fouls and one point.
“Hey, I had two charges and a steal,” Collins cracked. “I do a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score.”
When asked if he got dizzy from Howard’s elbow, Collins said: “Yeah,” then looked at Kirk Hinrich shaking his head next to him and said, “No, no. Uh, I just needed a 20-second timeout. … I had to regroup. I wasn’t ready for that. I’m ready for elbows and arms but I’m not ready for a head butt.”
Could he tell that Howard was getting . . .
“Frustrated? Oh yeah, because we had a little conversation about it,” Collins said.
The tactics were clearly wearing on Howard. He didn’t score his first bucket of the second half until less than a minute remained in the third quarter, but picked up his fourth foul and a technical for hauling down Pachulia.
It quickly became clear this would not mirror the second-round series of a year ago. There was hope for the Hawks after all.
By Jeff Schultz