Any Way You Want It, That’s The Way We Need It. Any Way You Want It…
Atlanta Hawks fans have gone on many a Journey with their favorite NBA squad over the past five-plus decades. Whether you’ve been Ryde-or-Die with them for fifty-plus years, or just hopped on board in the perennial playoff era of the last ten, you’ve built up quite a Bucket List in that time. High up on that list, the Hawks can, tonight, cross off a to-do that’s lingered seemingly forever: go into the house of the Boston Celtics (8:00 PM, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Go app, 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England, TNT for the locally-impaired), and send them packing for the summer.
Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers, Fred Jones, Mickael Pietrus, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert. Guess what they all have crossed off their Bucket Lists? All of them have hit big shots to help eliminate the Celtics, and they did it in Beantown. Not only that, they were among six different NBA teams that left Tommy Heinsohn sobbing into his Sam Adams on the TD Garden sideline in just the past 15 years alone.
Shumpert and J.R. Smith took care of business in Boston, on two different teams in the previous three seasons. Jason Kidd has gotten it done thrice, as an in-his-prime Net and a past-his-prime Knick. How about our old wayfaring friend Anthony Johnson? He’s been-there-done-that FOUR times, with THREE different NBA teams (not the Hawks, obvs). It’s a bit like skydiving. It looks challenging, and it is. But after you’ve see George H.W. Bush willingly jump out a plane every five years or so, not so much.
“Not Magic, or Doctor J, it’s Andrew Toney that keeps me awake at night!” So reportedly claimed Matthew Dellavedova’s power animal, current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, back in the 1980s, about which player worried him most whenever playoff time rolled around. Atlanta is chock-full-o’ Toney-caliber players. But which ones are willing to emerge tonight as the Hawks’ Boston Strangler?
Could it be Al Horford (last 3 games: 27.6 FG%, 6.3 PPG), who apparently needs to see his shadow before coming out offensively against what should be an overmatched Celtics frontline? Rumored to be quietly managing a groin strain, Horford has been distributing the ball well (5.0 APG, 0.7 TOs per game) in those last three appearances, but needs to be less passer, and less passive, in Game 6.
In his rookie year of 2008, in an injury-riddled season of 2012, Al’s playoff odysseys came to an end in this building. Closing out the C’s here tonight with an impressive All-Star-quality effort should be Shoni-Schimmel-huge in importance to the upcoming free agent big man.
Could it be Paul Millsap, who did not need a monumental scoring effort in Game 5, but has had two of the greatest individual performances of his career against these Celtics in this month alone? A double-barreled blast of Millsap and Horford would go a long way toward finally getting these Hawks over this little hump (a pellet or two of Big Hump wouldn’t hurt, either). Paul knows all about apparitions, and he’s even not talking about the ones that have chased the Hawks around Boston for eons.
“I think we learned that when we have a team down, it keeps coming back. It’s like a haunted ghost, it keeps coming after us,” Millsap noted, shortly after his team petered away a 16-point second-half lead in Boston along the way to a Game 4 OT loss. “We’ve had opportunities to put people away all year and haven’t gotten it done for whatever reason. And now’s the time to learn that lesson and try to implement it.”
The Hawks went small (an adjustment, from coach Mike Budenholzer? Is this real life?) and Mike Scott (7-for-9 FGs in Game 5), Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore (4-for-9 3FGs in Game 5) and Thabo Sefolosha flipped the script on the Celtics in the second quarter on Tuesday. But an eerie hand rose from the crypt in the second half, when Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger hit shots to whittle Atlanta’s double-digit lead down to five. Who you gonna call?
To bury the Green Goblins for good, Atlanta went with two graveyard shifts, one featuring Teague, Kyle Korver (16 3FGs, 3rd-most in Playoffs), and Horford, then one led by reserves Dennis Schröder, Scott, and Sefolosha. The Hawks widened the lead to 17 by the close of the third quarter and finally heeded Boston the Band’s sage advice: Don’t Look Back.
On the road for the final time in this series, the Hawks will need the same collective focus and poise tonight, to make the spirited Celtics get ghost and notch Atlanta’s first playoff victory on Boston’s parquet floor since 1988. As Millsap said, now is the time to “put people away,” and Coach Bud has had ample time to figure out the rotations to get it done.
Paul at least sounds like he kinda gets it. Referring to the blown leads, “it reaches a certain point where if something constantly keeps happening, it’s who you are, he said. “And it’s not who we are. We want to be better than that.” Both teams have had enough experience in this series alone to know their opponents Don’t Stop Believin’ just because a big run has them mired in a mid-game hole.
Isaiah Thomas won’t exactly be standing there with Open Arms, ready to embrace a season-ending loss in front of his legions of newfound fans. A surefire future stand-in for actor J.D. Williams, Thomas is concerned about not just the agony of defeat, but the agony of Da Feet, his ankle having twisted up like an Auntie Anne’s on National Pretzel Day. Still, there’s no way Thomas is going to let Teague and Schröder, the latter having successfully shaken off an ankle injury in this series himself, dictate the proceedings tonight.
It probably peeves the Hawks’ lead guards that Thomas, after struggling through most of Games 1 and 2, was receiving inspirational texts from a longtime ATL-area resident, diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson. Our Hawks can barely get life advice from Latrell Sprewell, much less encouragement from our local NBA retirees. “Keep fighting,” Thomas reported A.I. advised him after Game 2. “(The Hawks) did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta. Now, it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.”
Dude, were you not a 76er? What in Billy Penn’s name are you doing, cheering up a Celtic, of all people? No more endless TGI Friday’s appetizers around here for you, Bubba Chuck! While Thomas has enjoyed counsel from Hall of Fame-caliber guards, his favorite hoops mentor is always forthcoming with advice, and fortunately, there’s one particular insight that has helped Atlanta adequately defend Thomas at home in this series.
“Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips I can’t tell you guys about,” hinted Winning Isaiah, after dropping a career-high 42 points on Atlanta in Game 3. But prior to Game 5, Isiah-without-the-extra-A Thomas expertly illustrated on NBATV how the Celtics star is in the catbird seat whenever he can barrel down the middle of the floor, ball in hand.
Zeke showed that when a small but quick guard like Thomas can drive from the center of the court toward the paint, he’s got the most direct path to the hoop, he has optimal vision of what’s happening on each side of the floor, he can use his dribble to keep his on-ball defenders guessing on direction, he can create confusion among help defenders, and he can improve the likelihood of drawing fouls.
The Hawks were at their defensive best in Game 5, and in Games 1 and 2, when they denied Thomas (NBA-leading 17.2 drives per game in playoffs, five more than second-place Teague) access to the middle of the court. Instead, they met him at half-court and funneled his activity toward the corners, where it’s easier to trap him and coax him into deferring the ball. When Thomas played off-ball, the Hawks maintained their emphasis on denying him the rock at the top of the 3-point arc.
Neutralizing this aspect of Thomas’ game put the onus on his teammates to get open and execute plays before the Hawks’ defenders could properly rotate. His floormates did that quite well at home. But after repeatedly failing to replicate that effort on the road, it is Thomas Who’s Crying Now.
“(Atlanta’s) game plan was to let the Other Guys beat us. It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates for (Atlanta) to put two (defenders) on the ball every time I have it,” Thomas grumbled after Game 5. “Other Guys have to step up and make plays. That’s what it comes down to. If (the Hawks) try and do it again in Game 6 (and they will), it comes down to Other Guys making plays. I’m just going to get the ball out as quickly as possible out of the trap.”
When the finger-pointing point guard finds himself stuck in the AT&L phone booth, the Other Guys he calls upon ought to include Marcus Smart (7 first-quarter points in Game 5), who has drawn champagne throughout this series from his dry-well of a jumpshot, but can afford to create more havoc on baseline drives to the hoop.
Those Other Guys also include Amir Johnson (65.6 FG% this series, 3rd in NBA), who must get post touches and make Millsap more of a man-defender than a helper, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Smart and Turner (16 playoff TOs, most in East) must keep the ball moving, and need to consider the option of dishing the ball right back to Thomas in the event they can catch a trapping Hawks defender sagging back to his main assignment.
Did someone mention poise earlier? When you’ve got a cornered animal, you don’t need Dennis Schröder poking it. Schröder (4-for-7 FGs in Game 5, just one TO in 14 minutes) must treat Game 6 as Dellavedova Practice, and ignore any wolf tickets Thomas and the Celts wish to sell. Boston will try to play Atlanta’s ball-handlers physically in hopes of reactions that draw the undivided attention of the Step-Brothers (referees Scott Foster and Tony Brothers).
While Boston tries to get subcutaneous, both to rattle Schröder into making mistakes and simply to motivate themselves, Dennis can be enough of a Menace by adhering to his defensive principles and having a sound, multi-dimensional plan in mind when he drives to the hoop. There’s no time to get in the last dig, it’s simply time to put people away.
Building off five steals from Korver, and three from Sefolosha in less than 20 minutes of action, Atlanta finally established a significant turnover advantage (20 for Boston, 12 for Atlanta) in Game 5. Failure to secure 50/50 balls in the opening quarter had the Hawks slow out of the starting blocks, but the amped-up activity after Atlanta’s opening 18 minutes (18 points, 70 in the next 18 minutes of the 110-83 win) helped blow the game open.
That must continue in Game 6 for the Hawks, including their 19-8 advantage in fastbreak points, 30-19 in assists, and 44-32 in paint points. Korver, Sefolosha, and Bazemore’s synergy at the wing spots must be evident tonight, via their abilities to defend perimeter shooters without fouling, securing defensive rebounds and sparking transition, making Thomas move more laterally and less downhill, beating their man to desirable spots at the other end, and scoring on cuts to the paint.
There’s no reason to wait until Game 7 before the Hawks and Celtics have to head their Separate Ways. Even without the Celtics and the Ruins playing at TD Garden, there’d still be plenty to whet the appetites of Boston sports fans. The Pats get to make their annual draft-steals in another day or two. The Sawx are only now loosening their belts, and the MLB and MLS seasons ought to be wrapping up around the time Tom Brady returns from his deflating suspension.
Celtics fans can happily turn their attention toward a summer filled with multiple first-round draft choices and free agent fascination. First-round exits are always disappointing, but easier to swallow when you’ve got 17 title banners hanging in the rafters.
Back in Atlanta, there is little rush around here for anyone to turn their sights toward the Falcons, the Dream, or the Bravos (the expansion Blaze just started playing lacrosse, so, there’s that). Hawks fans have seen enough of the Celtics at the Highlight Factory, and there’s no desire to see visitors in an elimination game this weekend. Maybe save that for a later round, guys!
While the Hawks dare not look ahead, they certainly wouldn’t mind Friday becoming a rest-and-recovery day, rather than preparation for an all-the-marbles Saturday Night game back home. And while they can’t acknowledge it publicly, the players are fully aware of the significance to their franchise’s history, and their own NBA legacies, if they can shake free of some longstanding Hawks Hexes tonight.
So Hold Tight, Hawks Fans. Hold Tight…
Let’s Go Hawks!