(Updated: 11:50 p.m.)
CHICAGO – For all but one game in this series, the Hawks have played a 62-win team like few imagined they could or would.
That counts for something. It means that even with the Hawks returning home with a 3-2 deficit in this playoff series, there is some reason to hope for what comes next.
The Hawks lost to Chicago 95-83 on Tuesday night at the United Center, bringing them to within one loss of postseason extinction. But they battled back from an early 15-point deficit and threw a significant scare into the home team, leading early in the fourth quarter before a fade.
No losses are swallowed easily. But if the Hawks played with this kind of passion, effort and cohesion all season, they wouldn’t have been a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Can they win at home Thursday? Yes. Can they win a Game 7 back in Chicago? That would be difficult, but suddenly it doesn’t seem implausible.
“This is a difficult place to win a basketball game but we came out and competed so I’m pleased with that,” coach Larry Drew said. “But we just had some bad possessions in the fourth quarter. We reverted back to that isolation thing, and we can’t let that happen.”
Few expected the Hawks to be in the situation they were Tuesday night. They weren’t supposed to beat Orlando in the opening round. They weren’t suppose to be able to compete with Chicago in the second round, especially minus Kirk Hinrich, but they were even with the Bulls through four games.
Fans and media on both sides may have been stunned, but the coaches weren’t. “There are 16 teams in the playoffs, and everybody has talent,” the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau said. “This is the playoffs, and this is what happens.”
It has happened in this round for the Hawks for one reason: Jeff Teague.
Taking nothing away from the recent wonder that is Josh Smith, but Teague was viewed as the team’s biggest weakness. In this series, he has been their biggest strength.
He is starting only because of Hinrich’s injury. Who knows how many minutes he would’ve even seen in the series if Hinrich hadn’t pulled his hamstring?
He is running the offense like no Hawks’ point guard in recent memory. He is making clutch shots, clutch passes, clutch decisions. He went 5-for-5 in an 11-point third quarter when the Hawks played their best basketball and finished with 21 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
There is Teague with a drive-and-one. There is Teague going coast to coast. There is Teague with an acrobatic baseline drive and high-archer that closes the Chicago lead to 61-58. There is Teague moments later, driving into the lane again, but this time dishing to Smith, who finishes with a monster dunk that makes it a one-point game.
“Everybody else was doubled — I was just trying to penetrate and get in the lane,” Teague said.
Drew put it another way: “He’s surely not the Jeff Teague we saw during the regular season.”
The Hawks took their first lead of the game at 64-63. They led 70-69 after another Teague layup. But then they botched consecutive possessions — a miss by Jamal Crawford and a turnover by Al Horford (he had four). Chicago capitalized with buckets by Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson. Things slid from there. Soon the lead was up to 10 points (89-79) with three minutes left, and the Hawks realized it would be desperation time back in Atlanta on Thursday night.
The play off the bench of Gibson (5 for 5) and Rose’s 11-point fourth quarter were key. But the Hawks probably win this game if Crawford (1 for 9) and Joe Johnson (6 for 15) are having better shooting nights.
But they have succeeded in getting under the Bulls’ skin. After one Smith dunk in the third quarter, Carlos Boozer gave him a forearm to the face, sparking a brief melee and a double technical.
“I dunked the basketball, I go to turn and he just cleared me with an elbow to the jaw,” Smith said. “Nobody is going to do that to me, I don’t care who you are. I’m a man first.”
The offense broke down but the team didn’t. That counts for a lot. Those bigger picture problems of passion and effort have suddenly dissipated.
“This series isn’t over,” said Smith.
By Jeff Schultz