It took barely a week, but the industrious Hawks have done it. They’ve thrown away a 1-0 series lead and an 11-point advantage in a Game 2 for which the best Celtic was suspended, and they’re back where they feel most accustomed — being given no chance to do anything except embarrass themselves further.
Surely more folks would grant them a chance if they gave any indication they’d know what to do with one, but these are, for better and worse, the Hawks. In Boston they managed an improbable double, even by their crazy-quilt standards: They played a strong Game 3 without Josh Smith and Al Horford and a terrible Game 4 with both on the floor.
Smith scored 15 points in his return from a knee sprain and Horford 12 in his first game since Jan. 11 — and still the Hawks trailed by 23 points after 24 minutes and by 37 after 28. It was as if this were 2008 and these postseason neophytes had no idea how to handle a playoff test on the road, except that it’s 2012 and the Hawks shouldn’t be mistaken for neophytes any longer. (They’ve won a series each of the past three seasons.) But sometimes they revert.
Nobody knows why, though theories abound. They’re weak-willed. (I can see why people say it, but I also know that a weak-willed team wouldn’t have won Games 6 and 7 against Milwaukee in 2010.) They lack a big man. (And who’s that playing center for Boston? Bill Russell?) They don’t have a superstar.
OK, that’s legit.
They have Joe Johnson, who makes a mint, which isn’t the same as taking star turns in the crucible of the postseason. Last week Paul Pierce scored 36 points in a game Boston had to win. In 45 playoff games as a Hawk, Johnson has broken 30 only twice — he had 35 in Game 4 against the Celtics here in 2008, 34 against the Bulls in Game 1 in 2011. Over the next three games against Boston that year, he averaged 17.3; over the next five games against Chicago last spring, he averaged 16.8.
That last part addresses the central issue: Once the Celtics and the Bulls adjusted their defense to stop Johnson, the Hawks were essentially halted. (They were 2-6 in games after Johnson scored 30.) He couldn’t come close to duplicating those performances, and his team went hungry. He was revealed as a very good player capable of having the occasional big game but not a star who could carry a series. His team was revealed as a talented bunch that cannot overcome lesser showings from its leading scorer.
In Game 3 on Friday, Johnson at least went down firing. He scored 29 points (on 28 shots) and took eight rebounds in an overtime loss. In Sunday’s Game 4 he notched a triple single — nine points, three assists, one rebound. He took eight shots in 31 minutes. On Monday he suggested he hadn’t gotten enough touches, which elicited something close to a rebuke from Horford.
“He has to be the enforcer,” Horford said. “He has to make his presence felt.”
You might recall that Larry Drew became head coach after lobbying that he would de-emphasize the Iso-Joe offense that Mike Woodson preferred. Johnson was 11th among NBA scorers in his final season under Woodson; under Drew he has been 28th and 18th. Nobody would seriously suggest that those are superstar numbers, but when the playoffs arrive a strange thing happens: The Hawks still act as if they believe Johnson is a superstar.
Said Jeff Teague, speaking Monday: “He’s our go-to player.”
Said Drew: “We need him to get shots. We run a lot of things through him.”
It’s fine to say, “We’d rather Joe not go one-on-one so much,” less fine if you don’t offer viable alternatives. A year ago the Hawks’ response to Drew’s semi-new deal was that everybody shot more jump shots to lesser effect. This season Smith actually took more shots than Johnson, but whether that was by design — somebody had to make up for Horford’s absence — is unclear. The greater point, however, is this:
When in doubt, the Hawks still look for Johnson. He doesn’t always answer the call, but they look. Sometimes he performs like the Joe of old; other times he’s just an older Joe. But even the younger Johnson wasn’t quite capable of ruling a series, which underscores the flaws in this franchise’s grand design: It paid superstar wages to a guy who’s not one of the league’s 15 finest players, and it hasn’t figured a way to make him simply first among equals.
Johnson remains the Hawks’ go-to player because they haven’t found anywhere else to turn. When Pierce was claiming Game 2 for the Celtics, Johnson mustered five fourth-quarter points against two turnovers. Despite the Hawks’ best efforts, this series isn’t yet lost. But the Hawks cannot wait for Joe Johnson to win it for them. As good as he can be, he’s not that good.
By Mark Bradley