It’s not easy being an Atlanta Hawk. The whole wide world expects you to fail. Because you lost a playoff series by 101 points last spring. Because you spent much of this regular season getting blown out at home. Because your ownership promoted an assistant coach who was supposed to make you better and instead saw you slide from 53 wins to 44 with the same personnel.
But then the new season began, the one that matters, and you went to Orlando and took Game 1. Heck, you almost took Game 2. And what did the Magic’s Ryan Anderson tell reporters after those two games?
Why, this: “Atlanta’s a team that if things aren’t really going their way, they’re going to struggle a little bit. We’re different in a sense where if we’re down, we kind of know how to fight our way back into it.”
You’re an Atlanta Hawk, and you essentially got called heartless by Ryan Anderson. (Ryan Anderson, for Pete’s sake.) But it’s not just one Orlando sub who has come to doubt you. It’s pretty much the whole wide world. Because the Hawks’ way for a quarter-century has been to get people excited only to do something goofy. Like watch Cliff Levingston take the biggest shot in franchise history — Game 6 against Boston, 1988 — and miss the rim. Like trade for J.R. Rider. Like draft Marvin Williams. Like draft Shelden Williams.
But here’s the thing: To be an Atlanta Hawk now is to sit in a strangely sweet seat, after an 88-84 victory Friday night. Nobody expects you to win, and yet you’re gifted enough to beat anybody. Indeed, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy was asked before Game 3 on Friday about his announcer brother Jeff’s stated opinion that the Hawks are more talented than the Magic. “That’s of no consequence,” Stan Van Gundy said.
It isn’t, but it is. This is basketball. Talent does matter. At issue in this series is whether the better team can keep its head and hold its nerve. Because if that team does, the Hawks will be playing in Round 2.
Three games have been played in this series — a total of 144 minutes. The Hawks have won at least 100 of those minutes. They lead 2-1 on merit.
They made Game 3 much harder than it needed to be, wasting a 14-point lead and falling behind with 11 minutes to play. They wobbled, but they didn’t fall. Jamal Crawford conjured up a four-point play to put the Hawks back in front. Al Horford, who had done little, drove the baseline for a reverse and then made a jumper. Zaza Pachulia drew a charge from Dwight Howard, then took a key offensive rebound.
Said Crawford, who would make a bigger shot: “We showed we could handle adversity tonight. We showed resolve.”
Ahead by eight, the Hawks again let the Magic clamber back. Pachulia fouled Howard, and then he got himself ejected for squaring off with Jason Richardson. Howard had two free throws to tie with 2:22 remaining. He missed one. The Hawks still led, if just.
Then Joe Johnson missed. Jameer Nelson stole an offensive rebound and hit to put the Magic ahead by a point. Johnson drove and got fouled, making both. Hawks again by one, now 1:22 left.
Hedo Turkoglu drove and fed Brandon Bass. Crawford drove and fed Horford. Hawks back ahead, 42 seconds to go.
Said Horford: “I struggled with my shooting tonight, but Jamal had confidence in me.”
Turkoglu hoisted a 3-pointer from the dead corner trey over Horford and missed. Said Van Gundy: “Horrible shot.”
Crawford dribbled the clock down and, with 5.7 seconds remaining, banked home the clinching trey over the itsy-bitsy Nelson. Said Josh Smith: “Unbelievable shot.”
The team that couldn’t stay on the floor with the Magic 12 months ago had again taken a series lead. If you’re an Atlanta Hawk, you’re starting to make people wonder if they’d pegged you wrong. Said Crawford: “Thank God we won. That was probably the most important game of the series. The pressure’s on them now.”
Or is it? If you’re an Atlanta Hawk, the hard part comes now. You have to finish what you’ve started, lest your reputation as talented-but-heartless be cast in bronze for perpetuity.
And you’re capable. Orlando has been chasing you for 2 1/2 games now, and only in Game 2 did it catch you. You’ve outscored the Magic by 24 points from the floor in the series. You’ve held a double-digit lead in each game. You’re the better team. You need to take the wind from this pulsating victory and ride it into Game 4 on Easter Sunday. You need to ride it all the way into Round 2.
By Mark Bradley