For all the lip service that will be paid to the Hawks’ perseverance through injury and their rousing efforts in Games 5 and 6, let’s call this what it was: a massive missed opportunity. These NBA playoffs weren’t 34 hours old when the team that has never reached the Eastern Conference finals had been graced with two strokes of fortune: Derrick Rose hurt his knee and Rajon Rondo misplaced his marbles.
With Rondo suspended for Game 2, the Atlanta Hawks were staring at the likelihood of a 2-0 lead with the reality of either a weakened No. 1 seed or, better still, an unimpressive No. 8 awaiting in Round 2. Being the Hawks, they tossed their gifts in the trash can. They lost Game 2 here after leading by 11 points with 15 minutes left. They were outscored 18-15 the rest of the way by the 34-year-old Paul Pierce.
This series was lost in Game 2. In NBA history, teams taking a 2-0 lead have won the series more than 94 percent of the time — odds even the schizo Hawks would have been hard-pressed to defy. And, even though we didn’t know it at the time, the Hawks were about to become an oddity in these debilitating playoffs: They would get key guys back. Josh Smith reappeared in Game 4 after missing Game 3, and Al Horford, out since Jan. 11, was alongside. (Had the Hawks advanced to Round 2, Zaza Pachulia might also have been available.)
Add it up: Home-court advantage in the series; Rondo suspended for Game 2; the All-Star Horford making an unbilled return. And what happened? They were eliminated in Round 1 for the first time since 2008, beaten for the first time this century in a series in which they held the home-court edge.
Given their injuries, the temptation is to give the Hawks a pass and say, “Better luck next time.” But every team lost players in this overstuffed regular season — Rose worked only 39 games; Dwight Howard was done by Easter; the Celtics spent the last couple of weeks resting their Big Four — and the Hawks hit the playoffs in a strong position that should have grown only stronger. As Smith said after Game 6: “The road was paved for us, probably as good as it’s ever going to get.”
But they lost in Round 1 because, for all the advances made these past five years, this team hasn’t become anything more than a talented tease. The Core Four — Smith, Horford, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams — has been in place since 2007, and what we’ve seen the past two seasons suggests that the days of diminishing returns are at hand.
The Hawks’ winning percentage in their final two seasons under Mike Woodson was .610. Their winning percentage in two seasons under Larry Drew, the Woodson assistant promoted to tap untapped resources, is .568. Johnson hasn’t been the same player under Drew, and the Hawks haven’t found a workable mesh to replace the Iso-Joes.
On the key possession of Game 6, the Hawks found themselves with nobody but Smith inside the 3-point arc with seven seconds on the shot clock. The play had been designed for Johnson, but he wasn’t open and nobody else knew what to do. “We didn’t execute the play,” Drew said Friday. “Guys did not go to the right spots.”
Smith hoisted a 20-footer that had no chance. Watch the tape and you’ll see Horford raise his arms after the Celtics rebounded as if to say: “What was that?” It remains a question asked far too often of these Hawks.
“I was upset,” Horford said, speaking Friday morning. “I thought it was a really tough shot.”
He wasn’t blaming Smith — “We’ve seen Josh make tough shots” — so much as he was the breakdown. But that, alas, is what the Hawks have come to do: They draw within sight of a summit, and then they break down.
Too much scar tissue has formed among the Core Four. Drew isn’t a terrible coach, but he hasn’t been able to break this team of its bad habits: When in doubt, look to Joe; when Joe’s not open, hoist a jumper. (And Johnson isn’t even the Hawks’ best player anymore. Smith is.)
I wish I could tell you I see better days ahead, but I see a coach who hasn’t been able to do all he proposed to do. I see a Core Four already already past its collective prime. I see addled ownership and a caretaker general manager, and I see no reason to believe this management won’t be content to keep banking on a team that has already written a lengthy legacy of disappointment, this latest installment being the most galling.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for us,” Smith said Friday, and it was. The Hawks could have been preparing Friday for a Game 7 or, better still, a Game 1 against the eighth-seeded Sixers. Instead they stuffed some sneakers and basketballs in plastic bags and went home for the summer.
By Mark Bradley