As we’ve again been reminded, the Hawks are unchallenged masters of the cosmic flop. Less widely realized is this: Once the Hawks get their collapse out of the way, they tend to play some pretty good ball. Citing cases:
Game 5, Round 1 against Milwaukee, 2010: The Hawks blew a nine-point lead in the final 3:55 at Philips Arena in Game 5, handing the sixth-seeded Bucks their third consecutive victory and leaving the Hawks facing elimination in the Bradley Center. They won Game 6 on the road by 14 points — the intractable Mike Woodson even threw up a zone defense — and Game 7 by 21 back here.
Game 4, Round 1 against Indiana, 1996: With a chance to close out the higher-seeded Pacers at the old Omni — Round 1 was best-of-five then — the Hawks managed 11 fourth-quarter points and lost to force a decisive game at Market Square Arena. They fell behind 6-0 in as a loud a building as I’ve ever experienced, prompting me to tell colleague Jeff Denberg: “They’re gonna get murdered.” The Hawks won Game 5 by a basket behind the 3-point shooting of the legendary Matt Bullard.
Game 6, Round 2 against Boston, 1988: This one we know. The Hawks had taken games 3,4 and 5 and were poised to eliminate the mighty Celtics on a Friday night at the Omni. The home side played as if the game was too big for it, the end coming when a shot to tie was taken not by Dominique Wilkins or Doc Rivers but by the sub Cliff Levingston, whose touch was so deft he bore the nickname “House.” (Because he tossed up enough bricks to build one.) Everyone expected the Hawks to lose Game 7 by 30 in the Garden; they lost 118-116 in maybe the proudest moment in franchise history.
The Hawks in the spring are more difficult to handicap than the 3-year-olds running at Churchill on the first Saturday in May. This team handles adversity, much of self-inflicted, more adroitly than prosperity. If the comic-book Bizarro World — on which the credo is: “Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness!” — had an NBA franchise, this would be it.
Which brings us to current events. The Hawks had a chance to take a 2-0 lead on a night when the best Boston player was suspended. Being the Hawks, they blew it. As tempting as it is to suggest the Hawks have blown the series with it, they really haven’t. Josh Smith, hurt at the end of Game 2, figures to miss Game 3 but no more, and it would be just like the Hawks to win in Boston on a night when their best player doesn’t play.
Asked Wednesday how crushing the misdoings of Tuesday night had been, Marvin Williams — who has done nothing in the series, FYI — shrugged. “It stinks, obviously,” he said. “But it’s a seven-game series. You can’t get too high on the wins and too low on the losses.”
That’s boilerplate stuff, but it happens to be true. The Hawks aren’t out of this. They’ll need to blow three more games to be eliminated. (Wait. That didn’t sound right.) Their mission is the same as Boston’s was in games 1 and 2: Steal one and flip the home-court edge. The Celtics did the deed, but the Hawks are not incapable of winning at TD Garden. Especially when nobody expects them to win at TD Garden.
The Hawks could have packed it in when Al Horford was lost in the season’s 11th game. They could have slid to the No. 7 or No. 8 seed — although with Derrick Rose gone, being No. 8 doesn’t look so bad — and been content just to make the playoffs. They finished with the East’s fourth-best record, which was better than they did last season with Horford, and they’ve hung (relatively) tough even after backup center Zaza Pachulia hurt his foot.
The Hawks’ own Bizarro credo: They never take the easy way in, and they never take the easy way out. They confound supporters and detractors — at the same time! If you were among the few who liked the Hawks’ chances in this series coming in, you shouldn’t dismiss them now.
They did, let’s note, beat the Celtics with Rajon Rondo on the floor. It was only after he was suspended that they wobbled. They should have Smith back for Game 4 and maybe Pachulia for Game 5, and any Game 7 would still be played here. Even after the ritual collapse of Game 2, it would be no great shock if the Hawks won this thing.
Neither would it be a surprise if they didn’t. (How’s that for waffling?) Of the Bizarro Hawks, nothing is so deceiving as your most recent impression of them. Given that the last impression was horrid, better days must be ahead. It makes no sense until you remember that these are the Hawks, and then it makes perfect sense. Or not.
By Mark Bradley