With the score tied in the final minute Friday at Verizon Center, the Atlanta Hawks were in need of a hero. Despite boasting four all-stars in their starting lineup, the Hawks lack a superstar, a fact they have been reminded of during these NBA playoffs, when they have succumbed to buzzer-beaters and career performances.
So in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Wizards, the Hawks did not turn to a player but rather a fundamental concept — the pick-and-roll. On consecutive possessions, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll used the simple play to discombobulate the Wizards’ defense, lifting them to a narrow 94-91 series-clinching victory.
“It’s always fun just playing team basketball,” said Teague, who finished with 20 points and seven assists. “Those moments are beautiful. Like everyone says, I guess, we don’t have a superstar or whatever. But we come up big in big moments every night.”
As Atlanta, the East’s top seed, slogged through another playoff series, just how well the Hawks’ offense truly clicked had come under scrutiny both outside the locker room and inside their heads. Kyle Korver had been nullified by the stifling defense of Washington’s Bradley Beal, resulting in the sharpshooter averaging as many attempts per game as points (eight). And while Atlanta’s emphasis was to exploit the defensive mismatch created in the post against Washington’s small-ball lineup, Paul Pierce had vanquished that plan with his array of three-point daggers.
“My wife keeps telling me, ‘You’re two years in. Don’t get upset if things don’t go the right way. You’re two years in with this group,’ ” said Korver, who again struggled with just two points on 1-for-8 shooting. “We just keep building habits that you hope carry over into the playoffs.”
On Friday, Atlanta again leaned on those basic habits, thriving behind ball movement, spacing and cutting to find the open man.
At times, that meant isolating Paul Millsap and Carroll against Pierce. During a three-minute stretch late in the second quarter, Millsap exploited the matchup with three consecutive buckets — a layup, jump shot and three-pointer — to turn a two-point deficit into a six-point halftime lead. The all-star forward did it again in the final two minutes, draining a step-back jumper that briefly put Atlanta head by two points.
“It’s been a point of emphasis for us, try to post [Pierce] up a little bit and put him in pick and roll situations,” Millsap said. “But we don’t try to look at one thing, one option. We have many options.”
With four players scoring in double figures and Dennis Schroder contributing nine points and three steals off the bench, Atlanta made sure to utilize all of those options to stymie a surging Wizards team in the fourth quarter.
Rather than trying to make the home-run play, the Hawks ultimately resorted to the play that got them back home — the pick-and-roll — advancing them to their first Eastern Conference final appearance.
“When we make the game easy for us is when we’re at our best, not out there overthinking,” Millsap said. “We played our cuts. That’s who we are, basic fundamental basketball.”