They’d been the better team through four games, and then they lost Game 5 and folks started talking about how lousy they were. An Orlando Sentinel columnist called them the Birdbrains, which sounded a bit strange: If the Hawks were such plods, why were they still leading?
The same scribe predicted the Magic, having won one game in a row, would outsmart the Hawks and win the series. And maybe if this were “Jeopardy” they would have. But this is basketball, and at last check MIT hasn’t been to the Final Four lately. And Orlando won’t be going to Round 2 of these NBA playoffs.
The Atlanta Birdbrains will.
No, they don’t always appear to know what they’re doing, and there are times when they don’t appear to care. But in this series we saw the tenacity that was missing during the regular season. Yes, they were lucky in that they drew the one decent team they’d proved they could beat, but they took their break and ran with it.
They beat the Magic three times in one-possession games, which says much about their resourcefulness, and Thursday’s clincher came down to one tiny-but-gigantic play, a play we can only call … well, smart.
Inside the final 10 seconds, Hawks by a point, shot clock near its end. Jamal Crawford fed Marvin Williams on the left wing, and Williams launched a trey that looked good but clanged long. All the Magic, the team with the world’s best rebounder, had to do to steal this game was to grab the ball and hit a shot.
Then Joe Johnson stuck out his hand.
Joe Johnson has been criticized for just about everything — for not being LeBron James, for not being worth $120 million (as if anyone is), for not playing big in big games — but on this night Johnson not only played big but smart. He took and made good shots in the fourth quarter and helped the Hawks fight back the staple Magic rally, and when the game was there to be seized, he seized it.
Actually, he didn’t so much seize it as he punched it. Johnson smacked the rebound toward Crawford, who claimed it and got fouled and made two free throws.
Yet again, a game in this series came down to Orlando having a 3-pointer to win or tie. Yet again, the Magic failed. J.J. Redick missed one you’d have sworn he’d make, and Josh Smith swatted away Jason Richardson’s last-gasp cast.
Said Smith afterward: “We came in after practice Wednesday, and there were sheets of paper at everyone’s locker. And you could see everybody’s expression as they were reading [the Sentinel column]. They called us ‘birdbrains’ and ‘dummies’ — that really got us going. We felt disrespected. We came out and tried to shut that guy up.”
We can carp that Game 6 was, as happened in Games 3 and 4, closer than it should’ve been. But how much carping can be done when the lower seed essentially dominates the series? In three games here, the Magic led for a total of two minutes.
Said Crawford, the MVP of this series: “We showed a lot of confidence, a lot of resolve. We beat the same team that took us out by 25 last year. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Before the game, Hawks coach Larry Drew was asked if his team was indeed as, ahem, mentally fragile as has been suggested. “When it’s time to step up and turn it on, they’ve done that,” Drew said. “We’ve got some quiet personalities, but they’re strong in their own way. Deep down within, we’ve got some strong personalities.”
So what if three of the Hawks’ four victories in this series were hairbreadth things? This is the NBA, folks. Games come down to the end. What matters is that the Hawks stared last-minute defeat in the face three times and won every time. Crawford banked home a trey. Horford poked the ball from Hedo Turkoglu. Johnson punched a long rebound to the right man.
Maybe they’re not the smartest kids in the class, but they can play a little basketball. And now we get to witness a rare bit of migration. We get to watch these Birdbrains fly north for Round 2.
By Mark Bradley