With his dual-personality basketball team facing playoff elimination Tuesday night, Hawks coach Larry Drew started a center (Al Horford) who was coming off his first game in nearly four months and a forward (Marvin Williams) who had played his way on to the bench for much of this season.
“We wanted to give a different look and see if it jump-starts us,” Drew said.
This is where the average Hawks fan inserted the just-rearranging-the-chairs-on-the-Titanic joke. Because, well, what is an Atlanta sports fan if not someone with a sense of impending doom?
But something weird happened. Actually, more like something Hawks happened. Philips Arena was Sybil Central again.
They trailed by 10 early. They led by 12 late. They blew the lead (of course). They got it back (of course).
They led 87-83 with a minute left, but left Paul Pierce wide open for a 3-pointer (seriously?). Then they led by one point and had the ball with 10 seconds left, but Josh Smith threw away an inbounds pass to Rajon Rondo (Smith later on Rondo: “He’s got long fingers.”), only to knock away a pass at the other end as time expired.
Sorry. Did you lose your stomach about seven turns back?
But hey, the Hawks won 87-86. They live to play another game. That’s probably more than most saw coming after self-immolation two days earlier in Boston.
The Celtics still lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. They certainly will be favored to close this out Thursday night. But speculate at your own risk.
As for Drew’s lineup decisions, try this: Horford, back from a torn pectoral, finished with a team-high 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. Williams made three of six three-point attempts — the rest of the team was 4-for-10. On a night when Smith and Joe Johnson started dreadfully but finished strong, Horford was the difference.
Horford was expected to play 15 to 20 minutes. He ended up playing over 41.
“I didn’t want to bring him back that early in the fourth, but it was a close game and you could feel the momentum shifting,” Drew said. “He was a superman for us down the stretch.”
So was this: After making only 4 of 16 shots to open the game and shooting 35.7 percent in the first half, the Hawks shots 61.3 percent in the second half.
The Hawks were a resilient team during the season. So, yes, even given the backdrop of so many franchise failures in past seasons, it was stunning to see this bunch in Game 4 on Sunday morph back into the decipherable blob that lost four consecutive second-round playoff games to Orlando by a cumulative 101 points in 2010.
How does a team, knowing what’s on the line, find itself trailing by 24 points midway through the second quarter of a playoff game?
The hangover seemed to carry into Tuesday. Johnson, taking his usual public flogging for postseason failures, said following the morning shootaround, “We haven’t had a game like Game 4 in quite some time. It was mind-boggling, honestly. I’m still puzzled by that.”
He should try the view from the stands.
It wasn’t much better at the start of this one. Smith missed his first eight shots, too many of the what-are-you-doing variety. The Hawks started the game shooting 4-for-16. They trailed early by 10 points, 28-18.
Mocking shouts from the stands could be heard after Johnson misses (although it was difficult to tell if they were coming from Celtics fans or Hawks fans). He had complained he needed “more touches” after the last game, and the Hawks bent over backwards to appease him. At one point in the half, Jeff Teague passed up a wide open 3-point attempt to feed Johnson, who also was open. He missed.
But the Hawks found a spark late in the half. They went on a 14-3 run after consecutive three-pointers by Williams (two), Johnson and Teague, taking their first lead at 40-37 since 3-2.
Did the skies just open up?
Like so many things Hawks-related, it was an agonizing tease. They built a 12-point lead in the third quarter, only to implode. Four turnovers enabled the Celtics to close the quarter on a 10-0 run and the lead to 66-64. They did that with Rondo leading the way and Pierce on the bench resting his sore knee.
But the Hawks made another run. Teague fed Horford inside to break an 83-all tie. The next time down the court, Horford made a 6-foot floater to make the score 87-83, setting up the final frantic seconds.
Drew wanted to believe the Hawks could come back from 3-1.
“Like I’ve told our players,” he said, “I think we’ve had a great season despite [Game 3], and that game is no reflection on the rest of our season. We watched film, we talked about it and learned from it and now it’s time to move on.”
They did that. No telling what happens next.
By Jeff Schultz