When the Atlanta Hawks came to Washington near the end of the regular season and got clowned by 32 points at Verizon Center, upstaged by the likes of Othyus Jeffers and Larry Owens, it was very difficult to take them seriously as a playoff team. But nearly four weeks later, the Hawks continue to show how they can be incredibly talented yet infuriatingly fickle.
After losing 15 of their final 23 regular season games, the Hawks are suddenly 5-2 in the postseason, as they followed up a series win over the Orlando Magic by stepping into the United Center — where only five visiting teams have won all year — and claiming Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the top seeded Chicago Bulls, 103-85.
The Hawks entered the series missing starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who suffered a severely strained right hamstring in the series clincher over Orlando. But they were still incredibly confident. So brash, in fact, that Hawks vice president of public relations Arthur Triche left two tickets for Jameer Nelson after the Magic point guard was caught on camera telling Bulls all-star guard Derrick Rose “catch you in the second round” after the two teams met on April 10.
“We’re a confident group,” Joe Johnson said after the Hawks won their first second-round playoff victory since 1997, when they defeated the eventual champion Bulls. After that win, the Hawks had lost 15 straight games in this round, including three consecutive sweeps to New York (1999), Cleveland (2009) and Orlando (2010).
“We’re just going to try to ride this out,” Johnson said. “As long as we got each other’s back, that’s all that matters. We couldn’t care less what anybody thinks about us.”
But the Hawks really didn’t have to rely on any perceived slights to motivate them against the Bulls. They just rode the incredibly hot hand of Johnson, who lived up to that gargantuan, $124-million contract he signed last summer as he scored a game-high 34 points and knocked down a series of hero shots from long range. They also got the expected scoring punch off the bench from Jamal Crawford, who scored 22 and mentioned after the game how the Hawks have been successful because they have two guys who want to the big shots down the stretch.
“We’re the team that nobody talks about,” Crawford said.
Johnson and Crawford combined for 21 points in the fourth quarter, when the Hawks sent stunned Bulls fans to the exits well before the finish. Most of those fans failed to see Rose aggravate his sprained left ankle stepping on Crawford’s foot with six seconds remaining. Rose said after the game that his ankle his fine and he left the arena wearing some casual shoes.
“It’s fine,” Rose said of his ankle.
After having some success against another superstar, Dwight Howard — by simply letting him get his and forcing his teammates to beat them — the Hawks used another effective strategy against Rose. They turned Rose into a volume shooter, corralling him with one or two extra defenders and to limit his drives and giving him plenty of room to take his improved but still so-so jumper.
Rose needed 27 shots to get just 24 points, and failed to get to the foul line, after living there against the Indiana Pacers. Rose averaging 12 attempts against the Pacers. The Bulls attempted 16 free throws as a team.
The Hawks were a middling defensive team during the regular season, ranking 18th in the league in field goal percentage defense (46 percent). But they have committed to playing consistently on that end, as the Hawks are second only to Boston in the postseason, limiting opponents to 41.5 percent shooting.
They also became the first team this postseason to tack triple digits on the Bulls. Hawks fans were pretty accustomed to the dramatic oscillations of a team that actually has been outscored by its opponents through the regular season and postseason, but Al Horford was asked after the game if his team has finally found itself after foundering prior to the playoffs.
“I think, like some other teams, at times, we weren’t fully into what we were supposed to do as a team,” Horford said. “Teams go through ups and downs and for some reason, our regular season, guys was just focused on the playoffs and once we got into a position that we were good, guys just settled. But we are in the playoffs and we appreciate the opportunity that we have. We truly do. In the past, just making it there was great. This year, we’re embracing the opportunity.”
Hinrich limped out of the Hawks’ giddy locker room, dragging his right leg, but said the win “dulls the pain a little.”
Jeff Teague filled in for Hinrich and scored 10 points while playing admirable defense on likely MVP. Watching from the bench in a suit, Hinrich said he came to Chicago to support his teammates and would try to return for this series. But a team source ruled him out, claiming that Hinrich had a slight chance of coming back if there is a Game 7. He admitted afterward that he was hurt that his season would possibly have to end before he had a chance to play against the team that traded him to the Wizards last summer.
“Having a chance to play again in the United Center, nothing I’d want more,” Hinrich said. “I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play. I was really disappointed.”
His team — the same team the Wizards dominated a few weeks ago — is still around, though.
“Nobody gave us a shot in this series and we’re here now, up 1-0,” Josh Smith said