HOUSTON — Put it this way: If Atlanta’s pro football team has as a strong a finish in this city as Atlanta’s pro basketball team just did, there’ll be a parade down Peachtree next week. But enough about the Falcons. This night, wonder of wonders, belonged to the Hawks.
They trailed one of the NBA’s half-dozen best teams by 20 points with 8:20 remaining. They won 113-108. They closed on a 36-11 kick. Tim Hardaway Jr., who entered the game averaged 11.9 points, scored 23 in the final 8:41. I’ve seen a lot of Hawks games over the past 32 years; not sure I’ve ever seen one like this.
But wait. It gets even better. This astonishing comeback was achieved without a fourth-quarter minute from Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ best player, or Dennis Schroder, the starting point guard. Up by 20 with 8-plus minutes left, the Rockets had to be thinking they wouldn’t need to bring the great James Harden back this night. They brought him back and watched a rookie shut him down.
“What happened was DeAndre Bembry,” Hardaway said, being a bit modest. “You’ve got to give him all the credit. He’s a rookie and he was guarding maybe the MVP of the season.”
Harden returned with 7:03 remaining and his team leading by 14. He scored six quick points to give him 41 on the night. He didn’t score over the final four minutes. A rookie from Saint Joseph’s shut down the guy almost nobody shuts down.
“It was the first time I’ve gotten to play in a game like that,” Bembry said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Someone suggested to Bembry that he’d been on the floor when Tim Hardaway Jr. turned into Kobe Bryant. Bembry disagreed. “He turned into Tim Hardaway Sr.”
These were Hardaway’s points over the final 8-plus minutes: Driving layup to cut it to 17; driving layup to cut it to 11; 3-pointer in transition to cut it to seven; 3-point pull-up to cut it to five; driving layup to cut it to five again; 3-pointer in transition to cut it to two; driving 3-point play against Trevor Ariza to give the Hawks their first lead since the second quarter; two free throws to make it a three-point lead with 1:35 left; driving dunk to push the lead back to three with 41.8 seconds left.
“You look up and you’re down 10,” Bembry said. “Then you look up and you’re down five.”
Then you look up and the Rockets are falling apart. Their final three possessions: Harden missed layup; Clint Capela bad pass in backcourt, Ariza rushed 3-pointer that grazed only the front of the net.
“A pretty unique game,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “From 20 points down on the road against a player like Harden and a team like that.”
Not quite lost in the fury of this finish were Dwight Howard’s 24 points and 23 rebounds in his return to this city. (“That was special,” Budenholzer said.) He was booed throughout the game, but not viciously. And he authored a performance that any of three former Rocket centers — Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo — on hand to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary would have been proud to own.
Amid everything else ongoing in Atlanta sports, the Hawks have turned into a mighty weird team. Their past six games: Ten-point home loss to the Clippers without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin; road win in Chicago featuring a 19-4 closing burst; 26-point home loss to the Wizards; four-overtime home victory over the Knicks; 23-point road loss in Miami on Wednesday, and now this. They could easily have lost all six. That they’ve gone 3-3 says … something. Not entirely sure what.
Except for this: As bad as it can look, this team is too stubborn to go away. The Hawks will surely finish in the top five in the East, which — given that they came close to blowing up their roster last month — wouldn’t be bad at all. And this stunning result was surely their best win of the season.
Even Budenholzer, rarely one to emote, couldn’t mask his glee. After finishing his postgame briefing, he started to walk away. Then he turned. “Go, Falcons,” he said.