We stipulate that Game 1 of Round 1 can leave a false trail. The underdog believes it has a chance to steal a game on the road and turn a series that has barely begun. The underdog believes it has a chance, period. Over the fullness of a best-of-seven, most underdogs realize why they’re underdogs and wind up summarily dispatched.
Still, these Game 1s of this Round 1 in the NBA East were especially fascinating. Seeds No. 1 and 3 were beaten. Seed No. 2 — the defending champ, no less — would have lost had C.J. Miles made his makeable shot. The most impressive of the top four seeds was Washington, which was accused by the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap of playing “MMA” defense, which was curious given that the Wizards aren’t supposed to play much defense and that the Hawks’ 39 free throws (to Washington’s 17) were the only reason this was a game.
All of the above only reinforced the notion left by the regular season — if you’re based in the Eastern Conference, this could be a pretty good time to be pretty good. Cleveland won 51 games, which is the worst return for a team with LeBron James over an 82-game season since 2008. The Celtics won 53 but were beaten handily by both the Cavaliers and the Hawks in the season’s final week. Toronto has now lost four consecutive Round 1 Game 1s at home, which is simply nuts.
The belief remains that the Hawks aren’t very good. (They were outscored on the regular season by 0.9 points per game, which makes you wonder how they made the playoffs.) The belief also remains that they have the sort of draw that could lead to an extended postseason stay.
The Wizards haven’t reached the Eastern Conference finals since 1979, when they were known as the Bullets and their opponent was the Hawks of Hubie Brown. Dating back to last spring, the Celtics are 3-7 against the Hawks. The Cavs could well put it all together; they could also dissolve in a puddle of finger-pointing. Toronto could well lose to Milwaukee, which is playing without its second-best player.
The Hawks missed a chance in Game 1. They held an eight-point second-quarter lead on the strength of those free throws but gave most of it away by halftime and were outscored by 10 in the third quarter. The Wizards exploited the Hawks’ shaky perimeter defense and saw Dwight Howard outscored 14-7 by Marcin Gortat, once his Orlando backup.
Game 2 thereby becomes a huge deal. The Hawks have three days to ruminate over Sunday’s failings, and they’re seasoned enough to know that you can’t reasonably expect to win a series if you trail 0-2. Such deficits have been surmounted, but it requires a team winning four of five, which might be beyond this team’s capacity. Bring the series to Philips Arena for Game 3 tied at 1 and the pressure shifts to the favorite. Lose Game 2 and this could be over soon.