Milwaukee — I don’t think they’re going to lose, but you probably shouldn’t listen to me. I didn’t think the Bucks would win more than one game, and I believed the Hawks would answer the Game 3 embarrassment with Game 4 atonement. And they did play much better. But they lost again, and in many ways that’s more troubling than anything that happened in Game 3.
The Hawks should be at peak capacity. They’re young but playoff-seasoned. They have two All-Stars plus Josh Smith plus Jamal Crawford, who will be named the NBA’s sixth man of the year this afternoon. They spent last summer retaining and augmenting a core that reached Round 2 in 2009, and they won 53 games this season. They should be poised to go even further this time. But what if they lose to the Bucks?
“It’s a three-game series now,” Mike Bibby said late Monday night. “You never want to go to a Game 7. We let them back in it.”
The Hawks stopped defending in Games 3 and 4. They yielded 107 points Saturday, 111 Monday. Billy Knight’s grand design — draft a bunch of tall guys who can defend any position — was put to rout by the smaller Bucks, who ran their guards off high screens and forced bigger Hawks to chase them.
The signature moment of Game 4 was Al Horford, an All-Star center, trying to defend Brandon Jennings, who’s the quickest guy in the league. The result: Another Jennings drive, another Jennings runner, another ego-deflating basket off penetration. The Bucks, whose center hasn’t played a minute, outscored the taller Hawks 44-26 in the lane.
Josh Smith finished second in the voting for defensive player of the year, but up here he forgot all about textbook rotation: He was slow closing on 3-point shooters in both games. And the killing trey Monday came from Carlos Delfino, left open in the corner because Joe Johnson, the Hawks’ best player, didn’t run to him after the Hawks tried to trap with their halfcourt run-and-jump.
The rule of thumb is that teams defend better in the playoffs because they’re desperate. The Hawks have shattered that concept. They’ve been wrong-footed at every turn, and now they have to win Game 5 on Wednesday just to keep from facing elimination at the Bradley Center on Friday. Five days ago this didn’t seem much of a competition. On Monday, even Mike Woodson was moved to note: “We’ve got ourselves a series now.”
Bibby: “They’re playing good right now. They’ve got a great coach. They’ve played us tough. They’re fighting.”
Of those four sentences, how many apply to the Hawks? Woodson has been through the playoffs and taken an NBA title as a Detroit assistant, but he hasn’t gotten a better team — and the Hawks are clearly more talented — to lock in the way Scott Skiles has. In Games 3 and 4 the Bucks kept finding open shots, while the Hawks approached every position as a degree-of-difficulty challenge.
Afterward one Hawk was heard to wonder why Mo Evans, not known as a scorer, wound up shooting (and missing) on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions with the Bucks’ lead down to six points. There’s no answer except to say: That’s what the Hawks do. When in doubt, they don’t look for the open man; they look to shoot. And that’s always the harder way.
“I definitely think we’ll win [the series],” Johnson said. “We’ve been pretty good at home. But we can’t bank on that.”
The greater point: At this stage in their development, the Hawks shouldn’t have to be bailed out by their homecourt. They’re the No. 3 seed. They should be able to take a game on the road. But they gave a better account of themselves in Game 4 and still trailed the final 39 minutes.
And now we must ask: What if they lose the series that appeared a walkover? Their coach’s contract expires in June. Their best player is set to become a free agent. We all cheered when they re-upped Bibby and Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia last summer, but the cold truth is that Bibby is much diminished and Zaza is Zaza and Marvin is the Hawks’ sixth-best player.
Say they lose in Round 1. Do they break the bank to keep Johnson? Do they hand the team back to Woodson? If not, then to whom? Do they turn the leadership of this team over to Josh Smith and Al Horford? How much backsliding would that entail?
Me, I really don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think this is as good as it’s going to get for these Hawks. Because this isn’t good enough.