The defending NBA champions wanted this one. They had gone 2-2 on their road swing, and they needed to beat the Hawks, according to the Zen master Phil Jackson, to “redeem this trip.” Instead the regal Lakers were rebuffed, and rudely.
The Hawks beat the Lakers in every quarter. “That doesn’t happen much against that team,” Mike Woodson said afterward, but it happened for his team.
Down 10 points at the half, the Lakers figured to make a run. (It’s the NBA. Everybody makes a run.) The defending champions never broke out of a trot. The closest they came over the final 24 minutes — the closest, mind you — was seven points. The Hawks led by as many as 19 points, and this wasn’t a case of a road-weary opponent mailing one in.
“We got a focused L.A. team,” said Mo Evans, the sub who scored 18 essential points. “You could see it in Kobe’s eyes. But we matched their emotion and intensity.”
Matched them in emotion. Matched them in intensity. Trumped them on talent. Trumped the defending champions. Think about that.
“This shows we can play with anybody,” Jamal Crawford said, but there’s a difference between playing with anybody and beating anybody. The Hawks have been able to do the former for a while, and now they’re managing the latter. Over the past eight days they’ve beaten both teams that played for the 2009 NBA title. You don’t do that unless you can play some yourself.
The knock on the Hawks — even they concede the point — is that they don’t always fight as hard against the minnows as they do versus the barracudas. But soon that will become a non-issue. The Knicks and the 76ers won’t be playing beyond the 82nd game. Said Crawford, smiling: “In the playoffs you only get good teams. That’s good for us.”
And it is. When the Hawks lock in, they’re a load. The Lakers were motivated in a way great teams seldom are motivated in the 75th game of a regular season — “We tried our best,” Ron Artest would say — and it didn’t matter. The Hawks seized the lead with 1:35 left in the first quarter and never let it slip.
This wasn’t just a victory. This was domination. The Hawks outscored the defending champions by 12 baskets. They made only five turnovers, none in the second half. (Think about that.) Seven Hawks scored in double figures. Their bench outscored the Lakers reserves 48-22.
“They’ve got a lot of hard-nosed guys on that team, like Ron Artest and Lamar Odom,” Josh Smith said. “It felt good to see everyone play hard and not back down.”
On the contrary, it was the Lakers who conceded. Kobe Bryant sat out the final 2:32, his services rendered inoperative. Splendid as he is, there are no 17-point shots in this sport.
“We were solid from beginning to end,” Woodson said, and if the Hawks stay solid there’s no telling how high they can fly this spring. (Indeed, they nosed ahead of Boston on Wednesday for the third spot in the East.) No, they don’t have a Kobe or a LeBron, but they do have a deep and talented and resourceful team.
The consensus holds that the Hawks are doomed to lose either to Cleveland or Orlando in Round 2, but if you’re the Cavs or the Magic do you really want to see this team in a best-of-seven? The Hawks finally broke through against Orlando last week, and they’ll have another chance at LeBron’s crew in Cleveland on Friday. And is there any better fortification for a trip to Quicken Loans Arena than a 17-point drubbing of the defending champions?
“This team has a lot of potential when it’s focused,” Evans said, and these Hawks are focused in a way they haven’t been in … what, decades? As Woodson keeps saying, they’re playing for something. And when they’re playing like this, they can beat anybody anywhere.
Said Crawford: “When you beat the Lakers, a lot of people take notice.” That would presumably include LeBron James. And Dwight Howard. And definitely Kobe Bryant.