I kept asking the question, and nobody really had an answer. How do you lose this game? How do you lose on a night when you led by 13 points with 5 1/2 minutes left? How do you lose on the night you had played some of your best basketball in two months if not 20 years?
Said Al Horford: “We were at home. All the factors were lined up. I don’t think we’re the kind of team that blows a lead, even though we blew one at Golden State [on Sunday].”
They blew this 13-point lead even worse than they blew that 18-point lead. They blew this one as bad as a good team ever blows a game. They blew this because Dallas coach Rick Carlisle waited until the end to throw up a zone defense, and the Hawks’ coach waited until the final two minutes of regulation to get called for a personal foul.
OK, so technically it was a technical foul, but it involved a collision with a player. Mike Woodson bumped Jason Kidd while the Dallas guard was dribbling down the left sideline with the Hawks leading by two points. Kidd stuck out his elbow to draw contact, but there was no question Woodson was in the wrong.
Said Mike Bibby, who had answered two of Kidd’s three fourth-quarter treys with 3-pointers of his own: “[Woodson] was on the court.”
Said Woodson: “[Kidd] made a heck of a play. I’m not going to get into a [spitting] match with him … He did what he had to do, and it didn’t favor our team. I’ve got to take the hit for it.”
Instructive choice of words: Take the hit.
Horford again: “It was tough. Jason Kidd really changed things for them.”
Kidd is 36, a half-dozen years past his prime, but he willed his team to this victory in a way reminiscent of a young Earvin Johnson. Kidd’s line: 19 points, 17 assists, 16 rebounds. He shrugged off a wretched third quarter — he took eight shots, missing seven — and over the final five minutes of regulation had nine points, three assists and four rebounds.
And where were the Hawks? Missing their shots, missing their composure, missing in action. Over the game’s final 10 1/2 minutes (counting overtime) they scored 13 points. The Mavs dusted off their zone — Jamal Crawford: “They saved it for the end; that was smart on their part” — and the Hawks could do nothing against it.
Horford: “They couldn’t guard us one-on-one.”
But that’s the point. The Mavs overrode their weakness. As Woodson noted, the Hawks “controlled the game until the six- or seven-minute mark.” Then they threw it away.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. This was a bad, bad loss. Aired on ESPN, it offered the Hawks a chance to prove their bona fides against one of the best teams from the West, and they played really well up until the point where they fell flat.
“We’ve been blowing some leads,” Woodson said, and the inability for a basketball team to close out a game is as crushing as a baseball club that hands the ball to its closer and watches him blow the save.
“We’re a team that can handle adversity,” Crawford said. “We’ll bounce back.”
As bold as those words were, they rang hollow this night. A really good team doesn’t lose games like this, and that’s what the Hawks aspire to become and, for tantalizing stretches, seem to be. But how do you lose on a night when a technical foul against your coach for brushing the opposing point guard is the difference between winning in regulation and walking off with various manifestations of egg — scrambled, poached, everything except sunny-side-up — on your face.
Said Josh Smith: “You can’t lose a game like that.”
No, you can’t. But they did.