With 2:44 left in the biggest game the Atlanta Hawks have played in the 21st Century, Brandon Jennings missed a free throw that would have cut the lead to two. And you thought, “Big break for the Hawks.”
Then you knew better. You saw Ersan Ilyasova, who has never been confused with Kevin McHale, running down the rebound because Josh Smith, who should have been an All-Star, didn’t block out. And then Marvin Williams fouled John Salmons, and the one-point possession tripled in value, and the Hawks’ lead was down to one.
And then Joe Johnson, on whom everything seems to ride, charged into Kurt Thomas and fouled out. And then Ilyasova scored underneath over Smith. And then the Bucks were ahead. And then Smith missed a three-pointer and Al Horford missed a follow and Jennings missed a runner at the other end but Ilyasova snagged another offensive rebound and fed Carlos Delfino, who fumbled the catch but still hit the clinching trey over Mike Bibby.
And you wondered: How does any of that — let alone all of it — happen? How does Ersan Ilyasova will himself to dominate the final four minutes of an NBA playoff game?
“Just a lack of concentration,” Jamal Crawford said afterward.
But how do you not concentrate with a season on the line?
Said Crawford: “I honestly don’t know.”
I don’t, either. And neither does Mike Woodson or Rick Sund or James Naismith. It’s the great imponderable of a series that beggars belief. The Milwaukee Bucks are playing without their MVP; the Hawks won seven more games in the regular season and have all hands on deck, and they’re 48 minutes from elimination and perhaps a coaching search.
I keep wanting to believe the Hawks can still win this series, but I no longer have any basis for it. Game 5 was the worst moment in Hawks history since the loss — also to an undermanned Milwaukee team, also in Game 5 — at the old Omni in 1989. I was on hand for both, and the one of 21 years ago was the beginning of the end for Mike Fratello. For Mike Woodson, this Game 5 could be the end, period.
Nobody can seriously dispute this much: Scott Skiles has taken lesser players and leads Woodson’s team 3-2. (And that’s with spotting the Hawks the first two games.) Woodson has improved the Hawks’ record each of the past five regular seasons, but in a series the Hawks were expected to win easily he hasn’t gotten his men to do what they should. And if the players have stopped responding to a coach, what do you do? Fire 12 men or ditch the one?
Down nine on the road with four minutes remaining, Skiles’ team kept playing. Up nine at home with four minutes remaining, Woodson’s team was outscored 14-0. Fourteen-zip. Those four minutes were everything you’ve feared might happen to these Hawks but kept hoping would not. Said Crawford: “It was like a bad dream.”
It was worse than that. It was stupefying. (How do you not win on a night when Horford and Williams give career-best postseason performances?) It was the kind of loss that can, more than simply scuttling a season, scar a franchise. It was the loss that could not happen. But it did.