In the grand scheme, it might mean nothing. But when it happened, it sure felt like something. It felt as if the Hawks proved to themselves and the Magic that a Round 2 series between these teams might not be a mismatch, and they proved it with two exclamatory points a millisecond before the horn.
The game had started badly — the Magic led 15-2 — and was winding down the same way. Leading by 11 points with 5 1/2 minutes remaining, the Hawks saw Orlando tie on Vince Carter’s 26-footer with 9.9 seconds left. Having burned all their timeouts, the Hawks were left to their own creative devices, and what they managed was pretty sound basketball.
Joe Johnson drove and pulled up along the left baseline. Josh Smith flew along the right baseline and, with one majestic swipe of a mighty left hand, dunked home the miss.
Then everybody got really excited. Then they had to calm down to see if the hammer of Smoove had beaten the buzzer. Then the refs checked the monitor and ascertained that it had, just. Then everybody got really excited again.
“I knew it was close,” Smith said. “But I had to celebrate anyway. It had been a long time coming.”
Since Oct. 29, 2008, to be precise. Not since the opening game of last season had the Hawks beaten their Southeast Division cousins, and given that the two could well land in the same half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, this six-game losing streak — including three egregious losses this season by an aggregate 67 points — didn’t augur well for the local club.
But on this night the Hawks hit back. Said Al Horford, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds and who helped limit Dwight Howard to four baskets: “A lot of people were talking and questioning us against the great teams. It’s nice to go get a win.”
There’s no consensus on whether regular-season results matter once the postseason begins. “Not at all,” said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, speaking before the game. “I don’t think so.” But his was the team that had owned the Hawks over the past 17 months, and his was the team going for a season sweep.
And imagine the drag on the Hawks’ spirit if they would have let this one slip after building that 11-point lead. “It would have been another heartbreak for us,” Smith said.
Instead it became another in a series of last-gasp victories: A Smith dunk at the horn against Houston; the Jamal Crawford trey against Phoenix; the Joe Johnson jumper against Charlotte last weekend; now this. Say what you will about these Hawks, but they do keep fighting until the last dog dies.
“This was a playoff game,” Mike Woodson said, exaggerating only slightly. And the Hawks did as they might well have to do in the playoffs: They made Howard make free throws for his points and kept the many Orlando shooters in check and shared the ball — Johnson had eight assists, six of them in the third quarter — and Mike Bibby and Mo Evans made big treys to override the awful start. In sum, it was a reminder that for all the talk about Cleveland and Orlando, these Hawks can play a little, too.
Said Jamal Crawford: “It would have been one thing if we’d split the season series coming in, but they’d beaten us every game. I believe this will do something for our psyche. It was a big win.”
In winning, the Hawks — after a false alarm last week — clinched a playoff berth and stayed even with Boston in the Eastern Conference standings, and they drew within 3 1/2 games of the Magic in the Southeast. With 11 games remaining, they surely won’t catch Orlando; still, it was nice to let the Magic know there’s a bit of competition here in the A-T-L.
“There’s still room for growth,” Crawford said. “We didn’t play a perfect game. They threw the first punch.”
But the Hawks threw the final one. Two months from now, we might forget all about Josh Smith’s winning slam. But there’s also a chance we’ll have cause to remember it.