Game 2 wasn’t so much the Hawks against the Celtics as the Hawks versus prosperity. As voluminous history attests, this team is never so vulnerable as when riding high.
The lines from the Steely Dan song “Gaucho” might not have been written about the Hawks – “Just when I say, ‘Boy, we can’t miss. You are golden.’ Then you do this” – but they should have been. Even their coach offered a rueful acknowledgement of his team’s reputation.
Said Larry Drew, asked before the game about the Hawks’ penchant for losing when they shouldn’t: “We’ve seen that. You’ve been around here.”
Up 1-0 in the series, the Hawks would be working at home against a Boston team minus its best player. Unlike some of his once-stellar teammates, Rajon Rondo is neither too old nor too injured. He just got too mad. He bumped a ref at the end of Game 1 and was duly suspended by the NBA
This knowledge didn’t fill Drew’s cup of confidence to the brim. “Teams missing a key player are even more dangerous,” he said, and he should know. It was on Jan. 5 in this building that the Hawks lost in triple overtime to the Miami Heat, who were minus two players (L. James, D. Wade) better than R. Rondo.
Drew: “I’ll be that little birdie on their shoulder tonight just to remind these guys that we’re going to have to have a supreme effort from everybody.”
Their birdie’s notwithstanding, the Hawks bogeyed the early going. They fell behind 9-4 – Paul Pierce had all nine for the Celtics – and were down 34-29 five minutes into the second quarter. Even worse, the best player of Game 1 was performing like Josh Smith on a night when he has, for variety’s sake, decided to be the worst player on the floor.
Smith hoisted three early jumpers, missing them all. He flubbed a look-at-me breakaway dunk. Then he clunked a 3-pointer off the side of the board, a miss so egregious that the (non-capacity) crowd expressed audible angst.
Then, just because he’s Josh Smith, he changed the game to his team’s benefit. He took a defensive rebound that triggered Jeff Teague’s tying trey, dunked off the break – no silliness this time – to put the Hawks ahead and nailed a tough jumper to extend the lead.
Another Smith flurry early in the third quarter – a reverse layup, an 18-footer (hey, he doesn’t miss ‘em all) and a hook over Kevin Garnett – gave the Hawks a working lead of nine points. It grew to 11. Then it disappeared.
Drew stuck too long with his bench – to be fair, the Hawks’ bench has been good this season – and saw the Celtics draw within two. Then they nosed ahead. The only offense the proud C’s could muster were alternating jumpers by Pierce and Garnett, but the Hawks had stopped scoring altogether.
The home side managed six points – two Teague free throws, Joe Johnson’s runner and Marvin Williams’ stickback of a Johnson air ball – in the first 9:07 of the fourth quarter. By then the Celtics had taken a 79-72 lead. (Adding literal injury to insult, Smith had been taken to the locker room. Diagnosis: Sprained left knee.)
And then it was done, the Hawks having done it again. They’d wasted an 11-point home lead on a night when the Celtics had been reduced to winning on memory. They’d managed 14 points in the fourth quarter, one more than Pierce scored by his 34-year-old lonesome. The Hawks’ precious homecourt edge is gone, and Rondo will be back for Game 3 and Smith – his old Oak Hill roommate – might not.
All of this should have seemed shocking. These being the Hawks, none of it was.
Drew didn’t seem disconsolate afterward, saying, “The margin for error is very small in the playoffs,” and suggesting that his fallen team would rise: “We will not hang our heads at this point. We’ll show the world what we’re all about, what we’ve been all about all season.”
A cynic would suggest the Hawks had just shown the world what they are, and after such a game it was difficult to offer a rebuttal. As Charles Barkley was heard to say on the big TVs in the Hawks’ locker room: “You have to win that game.”
But they didn’t. There have been more deflating nights in the history of these Atlanta Hawks – the Cliff Levingston running lefty hook in 1988, the Game 5 collapse against Milwaukee in 2010, the many homecourt blowouts – but there haven’t been many. Another golden chance, to borrow the Steely Dan word, became another handful of fool’s gold.
By Mark Bradley