Orlando – It was almost as if they were expected to apologize for still being here. Everyone wanted to know how it felt to lose Game 1 by 43 points, and when the Hawks kept saying, “It’s only one game,” the reaction was as if they’d plunged into deep-dish denial. But you know what?
It was only one game. And Game 2 was much better. But it wasn’t good enough.
The Hawks showed Thursday they could play with the Magic for three quarters. NBA rules, alas, still stipulate four 12-minute periods. In the fourth period the Hawks did their usual road disappearing act. They saved it for later this night, but that’s not much consolation when you’re down 2-0.
Actually, the Hawks led with one second left in the third quarter. Then Jameer Nelson banked home a 29-footer in transition, and that didn’t augur well. The fourth quarter began with the Hawks shooting jump shots, an even worse sign, and soon Vince Carter was flying through the lane and Mickael Pietrus and Rashard Lewis were hitting kill-shot treys and the Magic were up 19 points in a game they were sweating moments earlier.
And that’s what made Game 2 even more distressing than the egregious Game 1. The Hawks gave it something approximating their best shot — or at least as a good a shot as they’re apt to muster in a playoff road game — and still couldn’t extend the Magic to the wire. They got 24 points and 10 rebounds from Al Horford. They deployed four centers to shotgun their fouls against Dwight Howard. They made 30 of 31 free throws, the miss coming in the fourth quarter.
And still: Magic 112, Hawks 98.
It’s one thing to get blown out on a bad night. It’s worse to have a chance after three quarters and then have none halfway through the fourth. It suggests the Hawks, for all their resources, are simply in against an opponent that has more — more ways to win, more guys to score big (four Magic men reached 20 this night), more of whatever is required to win in the postseason.
It’s becoming clear that the Hawks, who are better than they’ve been this century, still aren’t there yet. They won 53 games in the regular season and claimed the East’s No. 3 seed, but for much of the postseason they’ve been too easily addled. The old bailout — “We’re a young team” — no longer applies.
“We didn’t have anything left in the fourth quarter,” Mike Woodson said. And then: “Somehow we’ve got to put four quarters together to beat this team. We were a little bit better tonight, but you’ve still got to play four quarters.”
Game 2 wasn’t a failure of tactics. The Hawks positioned themselves nicely enough. They just couldn’t finish, and that has become a major failing. The Hawks haven’t won a down-to-the-wire playoff game since Game 6 against Boston in 2008,. They either win big or lose big. “We just didn’t execute,” Woodson said, speaking of the fourth period, and winning in postseason at some point must be a function of execution.
The Hawks opened the fourth quarter with Joe Johnson, who missed 11 of 16 shots, missing from the key. It was a good look, but it didn’t fall. Then Jamal Crawford, who scored 23 points, missed twice on one possession. Then Marvin Williams was blocked at the rim by Carter, who hit a trey at the other end. By then the Hawks were headed home two games down and with no assurance they’ll need to come back here for Game 5.
“Make no mistake,” Woodson said. “We were better tonight.” And they were. And still they weren’t in it over the final six minutes. And that sobering truth doesn’t suggest they’re not tough enough or smart enough. It suggests they just aren’t good enough.