If they’d done nothing else this past month, the Hawks made us recall how it was in 2008, when they took the champs-to-be to a Game 7 in Boston. They’ve reminded us what fun having a good NBA team in this town can be. They’ve allowed us to say the words “playoff basketball” without cringing.
Three years after that improbable Celtics series, the Hawks had again smacked into the East’s No. 1 seed and refused to retreat. They stole Game 1 in Chicago on a flurry of shooting, outfought the Bulls over the final minutes of Game 4 to draw even in the series. And the Hawks’ loss in Game 5 shouldn’t have perturbed them — down 15 early, they seized a fourth-quarter lead before succumbing.
Thursday brought the series back here. Many of these Hawks had done bravura duty in a Game 6 victory against Boston in 2008. The Celtics took a 15-point lead, and that seemed that. But the Hawks converted 17 consecutive possessions spanning the third and fourth quarter and won at the end, and that was the first night of the 21st century that Philips Arena felt like a real basketball building.
This Game 6, sorry to report, started in similar fashion, but this one never got better. The Hawks trailed by 10 after one quarter, by 17 midway through the second. This was the time during the regular season when these Hawks would roll over and lose by 30 or 40, but you shouldn’t roll over in the playoffs. (Although sometimes it happens. Remember last year’s Orlando travesty.)
Over the past month it seemed the Hawks had become a team again, not just a gaggle of wide-eyed jump-shooters. They’d fought harder, defended better, even gotten a bit smarter. But now they were down double figures on a night when the Bulls were guarding better and finding more scorers than at any time in Games 1-5.
For all that had come before, this was the test of the New Hawks: Could they hold themselves together at a time when little was going right? Could they give the home folks — Philips wasn’t packed, by the way — a finish?
Nope. It got so bad the below-capacity throng began leaving with eight minutes left. Just when you thought these Hawks weren’t the old Hawks, they uncorked a stinker. (And they wonder why we don’t take them as seriously as they think we should.)
Trailing 70-53 after three quarters, it soon was 76-55, the Bulls having reduced the Hawks to … er, a gaggle of wide-eyed jump-shooters. Sure enough, the Hawks’ first four shots of the period were standstill jumpers.
And then came the moment when you knew this playoff flurry was finally done. Luol Deng jumped Joe Johnson at the head of the key, and the $120 million man ducked his head and went into one-on-one mode. Deng stole the ball and threw long for Derrick Rose, who dunked to make it a 21-point lead.
Yep. Here was Iso-Joe, the thing Larry Drew had been promoted to help curtail, going kerplunk in a win-or-else game. Once again, a wrenching season-ending loss has called into question what we just saw: Were the Hawks as good as they looked against Orlando, or were the Magic just the right opponent? Were the first five games of this series a function of the Bulls’ relative playoff newness or a indication the Hawks had began to figure things out?
Said Al Horford, who missed eight of 10 shots and took only four rebounds: “You’ve just got to give them credit. You have to really execute on offense well against them, and we didn’t do that.”
Then: “They were the better team. They were more solid, more consistent.”
When you lose Game 6 on your floor by 20 points on a night when you never led, you leave your audience to wonder. For a few bright shining moments, these Hawks made us (almost) forget their tepid regular season, but then, just as we began to hope and maybe even believe, they got blown out.
Speaking before Game 6, Drew had said of his Hawks: “I think people saw us as a team that would make the playoffs and wouldn’t do well … [What his men have done] is truly a testament to their commitment.”
And it was, until finally it wasn’t. For all this team’s talent — and it has a boatload — there’s still something missing. Maybe a full season of Jeff Teague at the point will be the ticket. But it’s clear the separation between the NBA’s elite clubs and these Atlanta Hawks still exists.
The Hawks beat Orlando, and that was nice. They took the Bulls to six games, which was heartening. In the end it was another Round 2 exit, the third in a row, but give them this: At least they weren’t swept.
By Mark Bradley