WASHINGTON — In Round 1, the Atlanta Hawks had to win Game 5 at home to keep eighth-seeded Brooklyn from taking a 3-2 series lead. In Round 2, the Hawks have already fallen behind the No. 5 seed — twice! — and need Game 4 to keep from facing elimination in every game thereafter. Since eight NBA teams have overridden a 3-1 deficit to advance, it would be wrong to call tonight’s tilt an absolute “must” win. But it’s pretty darn close.
Two ways of viewing Saturday’s wild Game 3: The Hawks played as badly as they could — trailing by 17 points in the first half, by 19 after three quarters, by 21 with 9:34 remaining — and still almost won; or, if you’re more negatively inclined, the Hawks were utterly outclassed by an opponent missing John Wall and needed a bloomin’ wonder from a cobbled-together lineup to make that 21-point deficit go away, and even then they couldn’t win.
I’m not certain the Wizards can play any better than they did in Game 3, and I’m reasonably sure the Hawks can do no worse. But to type those words after three games of Round 2 tells us how the Hawks’ postseason has gotten out of plumb. In the regular season, they were 7-1 against the Nets and Wizards; in these playoffs, they’re 5-4. Two lesser opponents have outperformed their station; the East’s No. 1 seed has underperformed.
“We haven’t been ourselves for 48 minutes (meaning any full postseason game),” coach Mike Budenholzer said Sunday. Then he said: “The opponent is one of the reasons we haven’t been ourselves.”
The 60-win Hawks have been unable to do what they do best, which is make shots. They’ve been outshot over these nine games. Of the eight teams still going, the Hawks rank sixth in postseason field-goal percentage. (Cleveland and Chicago slipped below them after Sunday’s game saw them make 38.7 and 36 percent of their shots, respectively.)
Put bluntly, the Hawks are lucky they’re only down 2-1 to the Wizards and not 3-0. Imagine if Wall hadn’t missed Games 2 and 3. Imagine if he were apt to return. (He isn’t.) As is, the No. 1 seed can square the series and still win in six. (The longer it goes, the more Wall’s absence will show.)
I’d be lying if I said I’ve been impressed by much of anything the Hawks have done in these playoffs. I’d also be lying if I said I expect them to lose this series.
Further reading: The Hawks – out of character and on the brink.
From Game 3: The Hawks lose a game but win back some pride.
Pre-Game 3: For the Hawks, it’s now Eastern finals or bust.