(Last update: 10:17 p.m.)
Dwight Howard, once again reaffirming that there is no “team” in “I,” decided this week to have back surgery now rather than get an injection, bite a bullet, look away from the vanity mirror and wait until after the NBA playoffs to have his procedure.
This decision will not only submarine Orlando’s postseason aspirations, it fairly cemented that the Hawks and Boston will finish as the Eastern Conference’s Nos. 4 and 5 seeds and ensure they will meet in the first round of the playoffs. So at least in some sense, Friday’s Hawks-Celtics game was a postseason preview.
But the Hawks had better hope what we just witnessed will bear little resemblance to what happens next week.
The Celtics played their second string. The Hawks merely looked second-rate.
Facing a Boston lineup that was missing Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus – cue Rick Pitino: “Nobody of worth is walking through that door” — the Hawks started well enough (led 19-9 five minutes into the game), toyed with the Celtics for two quarters, got sloppy on offense, soft on defense, looked desperate, saw their lead dwindle to one point several times in the fourth, and then eventually stumbled across the finish line with a 97-92 win.
So. Feeling confident about next week now?
“As far as I’m concerned, Boston accomplished what they wanted — t0 have their reserves come out and compete at a high level and take us down to the wire,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.
He wasn’t celebrating, even though the Hawks (38-25) all but clinched home-court advantage in the first round. They lead Boston (37-37) by 1½ games. They have only three to play and the Celtics have two.
So there’s the comfort of that. But everything else Friday made you want to run headfirst into a wall.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers explained his team’s lineup before the game as so: “We would like home-court advantage in the playoffs, but it’s more important to be healthy and fresh.”
Let me translate: “Take this game. We surrender.”
I mean, does anything wave a white flag more than a starting lineup of Avery Bradley, Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma?
Rivers gave us Celtics Lite. The Hawks had a chance to bury their likely first-round opponent and maybe dent their egos just a bit. Instead, they came close to getting humiliated.
The lone bright spot was Joe Johnson, who finished with 30 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals. His drive-and-one with two minutes remaining stretched a one-point lead to 90-86. His feed to Josh Smith with under a minute left gave the Hawks some relative comfort at 94-88.
“We were just careless,” Smith said later. “When you get geared up to play a team with the high potential of Boston and you come out right before the game see that [their starters] are not going to play, I don’t know if it does something mentally to you but … it makes it unpredictable.”
It was easy to understand Rivers’ mindset Friday. The ridiculous post-lockout schedule, courtesy of commissioner David Stern, has prompted coaches to rest banged up starters all season. But Rivers’ lineup also suggested he either had supreme confidence in his team in the playoffs or he just didn’t fear the Hawks much, regardless of where the games are going to be played.
A slight ‘dis’, perhaps?
Drew said before the game he wasn’t insulted by Rivers’ decision. Nor with Smith.
“I don’t think it’s a slap in the face,” he said, repeating a reporter’s question. “They have a good team, a veteran team. They know how to win on the road and win in the postseason. If they don’t want [home court], we’ll take it. We’ll definitely take it.”
Drew intended to keep his offensive and defensive sets vanilla Friday so as to not tip off Rivers on any changes he had planned for the playoffs. That thought process would’ve worked if the Hawks hadn’t turned the ball over 18 times, given up some easy buckets and generally played down to the competition.
The fourth quarter was pure desperation. It’s not the last memory the Hawks wanted before the playoffs. Fortunately, the slate is wiped clean before next weekend. They will be glad to let this one go.
By Jeff Schultz