Milwaukee — They had a chance to show us they’d matured. They had a chance to make quick work of a team that, without Andrew Bogut, is the weakest entity in the playoff grid. Instead the Hawks gave the Milwaukee Bucks reason to believe. If you’re the better team, that’s the last thing you want.
The Hawks trailed by 17 points after 12 minutes of Game 3. They didn’t look like the better team. They didn’t look like much of a team at all. They were outflanked tactically and overwhelmed emotionally.
“Unacceptable,” said Joe Johnson, who scored 16 of the Hawks’ 40 first-half points.
“I was disappointed,” said Al Horford, who had two points the first half. “I didn’t think we were there mentally.”
“We didn’t bring our own energy,” said Josh Smith, who managed only seven points in 36 minutes after stirring up a mini-tempest by suggesting Milwaukee is Nowheresville. (Smith afterward: “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”)
Their play in the first quarter suggested the Hawks believed they’d already won the series, which technically they haven’t. (NBA rules stipulate four victories, not two.) They were a step slow from the start, and that’s a bad thing to be when the other team is smaller and quicker.
The Bucks spread the court and ran their guards off screens. The Hawks, as is their wont, switched on everything, which spawned little-on-big mismatches. As good a defenders as Smith and Al Horford are, they can’t keep up with Brandon Jennings and John Salmons 25 feet from the hoop.
Jennings made three treys in the first 7 1/2 minutes. He and Salmons made nine of 10 shots between them in the first 9 1/2 minutes, at which point the Bucks led 31-13. So much for coming on the road and taking the crowd out of the game. So much for matching an overmatched opponent’s fire with fire.
The Bucks know they cannot hope to beat the Hawks by playing conventional basketball. Milwaukee’s only hope is to dazzle its opponent with footwork, and that’s precisely what occurred in Game 3. The Bucks didn’t try to feed the post because they don’t have a post player. They made their last stand on the perimeter, and they wound up standing pretty darn tall.
Let’s be honest: This was the key game in the series. Not regarding its outcome — the Hawks should and will prevail — but its duration. The Hawks came to the frigid Midwest with a chance to put the Bucks to bed, and instead they were wrong-footed. With Orlando leading Charlotte 3-0, that’s a major consideration. You don’t want to be the team coming into Round 2 on short rest.
It’s not that good teams never lose a game in the postseason. They do. Cleveland fell way behind at Chicago but wound up nearly winning. The Lakers lost in Oklahoma City. The difference is, both those Game 3 losers gave themselves a chance. The Hawks fell behind and stayed there. They never put any game pressure, to use a Krzyzewski phrase, on the home team. They made it too easy.
And that’s the reason the Hawks still aren’t considered a first-tier NBA team. Yeah, they won 53 games this season, but they had a losing record on the road. Given a chance to make a bold statement in this essential road game, they looked up halfway through the fourth quarter and saw themselves 28 points in arrears.
They’re better than that, or they should be. They’re seasoned enough to know what’s coming in a Game 3 on the road. They’re gifted enough to take an inspired opponent’s best shot and hit back harder. But on this sobering night they seemed content to rely on Philips Arena to win the series for them.
Which it can. The Bucks aren’t apt to break through in Atlanta. But the Hawks can’t reach the Eastern Conference finals unless they win away from home against an opponent far better than Milwaukee.