Milwaukee – There’s a belief within the Hawks’ organization — not a pipe dream, but an actual belief — that this is one of the half-dozen teams capable of playing into June. On talent, it is. But even now, in this third playoff run, there’s something missing.
Over the past 25 months, the Hawks have played 10 road playoff games. They’ve lost nine. As egregious as Saturday’s performance was here, it was the closest of those nine defeats.
That’s correct. An 18-point loss was, by Hawks standards, a tight road game. The average margin of those nine losses is 25.6 points. Only by the loosest possible definition can such showings be called competing.
Granted, six of those losses — four in Boston in 2008, two in Cleveland last spring — came against the overall No. 1 seed. The Hawks were too raw to handle the champs-to-be Celtics on the parquet and too injured to match up with LeBron’s crew in the Q. But what was Saturday’s excuse?
The Hawks are demonstrably better than the Bucks, yet they let the home side be the aggressor. They invariably do. They were 19-22 away from Philips Arena this season; by way of contrast, the callow Oklahoma City Thunder was 23-18.
“We struggled on the road this season,” Joe Johnson said Saturday. “We’ve got to try to find a way to change that. It’s unacceptable to get blown out the way we did.”
The Hawks will win this series because they’re the better team and they have the homecourt edge, but they won’t have it much longer. And if you’re losing to the Bucks-minus-Bogut in Round 1, what happens when you play Orlando in Round 2? (Average margin of the Hawks’ two losses in the O-Dome this season — 20 points.)
Said Al Horford: “If we’re going to be one of the top teams and get where we think we’re going to go, we have to start handling our business on the road.”
Well, yes. But it isn’t as if the Hawks keep getting undone by last-second shots. They’re not close enough for the fourth quarter to matter. Even the one Hawks’ road playoff victory this century wasn’t a function of endgame precision: They beat Miami by 10 in Game 4 last year.
The easy excuse is to pin everything on Mike Woodson. It is, after all, a coach’s job to prepare his men. That said, those men have to follow through. There’s blame enough on both sides: Woodson has enough players to win, but all the strategy in the world counts for nothing if you’re down 17 after 12 minutes.
Asked why the Hawks settled for jump shots in Game 3, as opposed to scoring on the break, Johnson said: “We couldn’t get out in transition because we weren’t getting any stops. We were taking the ball out of the net.”
We can quibble with Woodson’s switch-on-every-screen defensive scheme, but the same defense works in Philips. His players simply didn’t switch fast enough in Game 3. When Josh Smith was slow to close on Ersan Ilyasova, who sank the Bucks’ fifth trey of the first 11 1/2 minutes, the Hawks’ coach mouthed one word. The word cannot be reproduced in a family publication.
Said Woodson, speaking before his team’s practice at Marquette on Sunday: “I said worse than that in our film session this morning.”
Say what you will about Woodson, but he has a feel for what winning in postseason requires. He was an assistant when Detroit took the title in 2004, and the Pistons had to win Game 6 in New Jersey to survive Round 2. “The good teams, they figure it out,” he said. “We’ve been a growing team, but we’re not where I think we should be. Knowing you can go get one on the road — that’s the next major step.”
Perhaps it will come Monday in Game 4. It needs to come soon. There’s no excuse for losing this badly this often just because the crowd is against you. And for what transpired Saturday, Woodson had another one-word verdict, this one printable but no less damning.
The word: “Embarrassing.”