Orlando – The first reporters into the locker room after Game 1 were treated to a strange tableau: The Hawks were comforting themselves by reliving past blowouts. “We lost to Miami by 26 [in Game 6] last year,” Mo Evans could be heard telling teammates, and if any team can cite blowout precedent, it’s this.
Evans’ point was that the Hawks beat Miami in Game 7, and that if such a two-day turnaround was possible then, why not now? Why not answer a 43-point loss, the worst in Atlanta playoff history, with a who’d-have-believed-it victory in Game 2 here Thursday?
“This is still going to be a long series,” Mike Woodson said after practice Wednesday, and somehow it didn’t sound like utter wishful thinking.
The Hawks can get pounded; this we know. They’re 2-11 on the road over the past three postseasons, and in only one of the losses (Game 4 in Milwaukee) have they come within 19 points. But they’ve also won two best-of-seven series — won two Game 7’s, let’s recall — and last week they survived an elimination game at the Bradley Center. No matter how it sometimes appears, they are not a terrible team.
The question, then: Why do they so often play like a terrible team? Why haven’t they once made a significant playoff comeback away from Philips Arena?
“We get down and kind of bury our heads,” Woodson said. “At home we don’t do that. At home we come back and win. I still want to say we’re a team learning how to win, but surely it can’t be that lopsided.”
Shaquille O’Neal famously dubbed Stan Van Gundy, now the Magic’s coach, the Master of Panic. The Hawks, alas, are the true masters of panic. In a sport built on runs, they never answer an opponent’s surge. (At least not on the road.) They stop defending to specifications. They stop passing the pass. They go jump-shot crazy, and few substantial comebacks are ever fueled by jump shots.
Much of this has to do with Joe Johnson. When in doubt, the Hawks go Iso-Joe. Sometimes it works, but those times tend to come at home. When it doesn’t work — when Johnson dribbles to excess and then shoots and misses — it looks awful and the other Hawks get antsy. So they start shooting, too. And wind up getting obliterated.
“We have assembled a team here of talented players who can do a lot of things,” Woodson said, but too often it comes to one man dribbling and the others standing. That method has taken the Hawks from oblivion to Round 2 of the playoffs, so we can’t say it has failed. But it fails on the road in the playoffs, and the postseason is now the measure of this team.
Woodson: “If we can just be competitive for four quarters and then go home and handle our business, anything can happen. But it can’t be lopsided.”
Alas, it usually is. Nobody seriously believes the Magic are 43 points better than the Hawks — the best team in the NBA isn’t 43 points better than the worst — but Game 1 was a reversal of such immensity that it all but washed away the good feeling from the Milwaukee series.
Woodson plans to tweak things for Game 2. He’ll revert to his usual substitution pattern, as opposed to making 12th man Jason Collins his first sub, and will activate Randolph Morris to have another big man to use against Dwight Howard. He’ll have Joe Johnson guard Vince Carter and — good luck with this — let Mike Bibby try Jameer Nelson. But tweaks alone won’t override a 43-point spread; Woodson’s players simply must be tougher.
We can’t really say the Hawks have no heart. Were that the case, they’d have been eliminated by Milwaukee. What they lack, even in this third playoff go-round, is the mental toughness to keep playing smart basketball when the opponent is flying and its crowd is roaring. The best they can offer is to note that, what the heck, they’ve been blown out before. And that’s weak.