Say what you will about these Hawks, and by now we’ve said it all, usually with a few choice words interspersed. That they’re sloppy with a lead. That they often act as if basketball was a sport scored on degree of difficulty. That they lead the world in keeping both teams in the game.
But here’s something we haven’t been able to say about any Hawks team since 1970: That it leads a best-of-seven series 3-1.
Also this: That it’s one game from winning a playoff series in which it didn’t hold the homecourt edge for the first time since 1996.
Also this: That in taking Game 4 on Sunday it made you want to tear out your hair.
The Hawks are so much better than the Magic that the wonder isn’t that Orlando is facing elimination; the wonder is that the Magic still have a game to play. The Hawks have led by double figures four times running, and in Game 4 they jumped ahead by 16 points on a night when Jason Richardson, Orlando’s second-leading scorer, didn’t play and when Dwight Howard, the only Magic man worth his wizard hat, was in foul trouble inside the first six minutes.
Orlando never led, but inside the final six minutes it was tied. And you noted that the Hawks had limited the Magic to two 3-point baskets — Orlando would finish 2-for-23 — on treys, and you thought, “How in the name of Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell is this even close?”
Had the Hawks blown this one, we’d have cussed and fussed and damned them with the enduring kiss-off: Same Old Hawks. But they didn’t lose. They steeled themselves and let Joe Johnson earn some of his $120 million and saw Al Horford again turn Hedo Turkoglu to jelly with the game on the line.
Said Larry Drew, the coach: “This team has shown it can respond to adversity.”
Never mind that much of the adversity is self-inflicted. Never mind that the Hawks haven’t yet found a jump shot not worth taking. Never mind that Josh Smith had one of the least impressive near-double-doubles in playoff annals. Never mind any of that.
Playoff basketball is a bottom-line entity, and the scoreboard tells us that the Hawks lead 3-1 over a team that finished six games ahead of them, the same team — well, the same but different — that once embarrassed them. Should we quibble over style points when these Hawks were beaten by 101 real points over four games by Orlando only last spring?
Said Horford, who poked the ball from Turkoglu on the Magic’s final possession and rendered the subsequent 3-point try another forlorn hope: “The only thing was disturbing about this was that we weren’t able to hold the lead. During the year, we’d probably have lost. That shows poise and growth.”
It does. It also shows that the Hawks, who couldn’t figure a way to match up with the Magic a year ago, now enjoy mismatches all over the place. Horford on Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson? Johnson on Jason/Quentin Richardson? Jamal Crawford on anybody?
Crawford had 25 points and six assists in Game 4. He has scored at least 20 points in each of the four games. He has become almost as tough a take for Orlando as Howard is for the Hawks. Even as the lead was diminishing and the Hawks were doing their usual goofy stuff, there was one ray of hope: Surely Crawford would think of something.
“Jamal gave it to us for three quarters,” Smith said, “and Joe said, ‘I’ll take it from here.’ ”
Johnson scored the Hawks’ final 10 points, giving lie, at least for this night, to the notion that he’s a small-game player. And now the team almost nobody liked 10 days ago is within 48 minutes of the Eastern Conference semis. It’s a team that has profited against the one worthy opponent it proved it could handle this regular season, but that’s part of the charm of the postseason. Sometimes you get a break.
Credit the Hawks for taking their break and wringing three victories from it. A fourth should be forthcoming, but here we emphasize “should.” Because these are the Hawks, and they’re a strange crew. They’re so strange the 50-win Magic haven’t yet found a way to handle them.
By Mark Bradley