Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) and Boston Celtics center Ryan Hollins (50) battle for a loose ball during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff series basketball game Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 87-86. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Could it be that the Atlanta Hawks have been playing possum against the Boston Celtics in the opening round of the NBA playoffs?
Could it be that the feathered fighters who silenced the Celtics 87-86 at Philips Arena on Tuesday night and pulled within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series are capable of reaching the second round of the postseason for a fourth straight spring?
Moreover, could it be that the Hawks actually have the edge, since Boston forward Paul Pierce -- the Big Green's most dangerous and reliable offensive threat -- is struggling with a gimpy knee heading into Thursday night's Game 6?
This isn't to say that Atlanta is home free. As long as you've got a home game to close out a series, you control your own destiny. And the Hawks have a confounding habit of playing their best when you expect the worst and their worst when you await their best.
Still, this Atlanta team showed more heart against the Big Green -- or the "Big, bad Celtics," as Boston coach Doc Rivers screamed at his squad last week -- than at any time in recent memory.
Here was forward Josh Smith, an Atlanta native, playing on his own gimpy knee while posting a double-double. Here was forward Al Horford -- sidelined since mid-January until this past Sunday -- also turning in a double-double and seemingly hitting every open jump shot.
In fact, back-to-back Horford baskets gave the Hawks an 87-83 lead with two minutes to go.
No wonder TNT analyst Reggie Miller said of the former Florida Gators star, "Horford is doing big-boy things out there."
Even Marvin Williams -- so often maligned in the past -- drilled two straight 3-pointers in the second quarter to help the Hawks head to the break with a 40-all tie after being down six after the first period.
But perhaps most remarkably, after one of the worst performances in playoff history in Sunday's no-show loss in Boston, Atlanta battled as if it really wanted to win, as if it wanted to prove to TNT studio hosts Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley that the Hawks weren't too cool to care, as Smith and Barkley had suggested in both the pregame show and at halftime.
"We didn't want to lose at home on a jump shot," an ecstatic Horford said after forcing Boston point guard Rajon Rondo into a game-ending turnover. "We wanted to keep playing."
Since coming to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks have never kept playing all the way to the NBA finals. Though the franchise won a world championship as the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, the Atlanta version has watched 21 other teams play for championships and 15 others win them in that span.
To understand the totality of that futility, of the 10 teams that made up the NBA just before the Hawks moved to Atlanta, only the old Cincinnati Royals -- who are now the Sacramento Kings -- also have failed to reach the finals at least once.
And even the Kings have been to a conference final more recently than the Hawks, who never have reached an Eastern final since moving to that division in 1971.
It's all been enough to cause Barkley to surmise at Tuesday night's beginning, "We've watched this for three or four years. The movie ends the same. They all drown."
And it looked as if the Hawks would drown again in the first quarter. Smith started 0-for-7 and blew a dunk. Atlanta missed 12 of its first 16 shots as Boston raced to a six-point lead after one quarter. The Hawks were so cool they were cold as a corpse.
But then Williams hit his triples, the Philips crowd came alive and the Hawks suddenly showed the kind of life that earned them the home court in the opening round of this strike-shortened season.
Yes, they still trail in the series. And, yes, for the five thousandth time, they should have grabbed All-Star point guards Deron Williams or Chris Paul instead of Williams in that 2005 draft.
But playing as they did Tuesday, this movie just might end happily for the big boys from the Big Peach against the big, bad Celtics of Beantown, however "turrible" that might prove for Barkley's prognosticating.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...