Al Horford drove down the baseline and spotted Paul Millsap on the opposite side of the basket. As is typical for an Atlanta Hawks player, he made the proper decision and dropped a pass to Millsap. Nets center Brook Lopez read the play, however, and blocked Millsap's layup attempt. He caught the ball at its zenith and snatched it down, but it slipped out and landed back in the hands of Horford, who had the presence of mind to toss it toward the backboard and into the rim. After the play was done, Horford stood under the basket and faced the crowd, letting out a wicked yell that lasted several seconds.
Horford is not associated with posturing, nor are the Hawks, for that matter. But he had earned the right to let out frustration with 7:52 left in the third quarter and in a series that has become an enigma. Heading into the playoffs, Atlanta possessed the best record in the East and became the first team in franchise history to collect 60 wins in a season. While the odds were on their side, none of that mattered once the series started, Horford said after the Hawks pulled out a 107-97 Game 5 win against the Nets to claim a 3-2 advantage.
"We didn't have any expectations," Horford said in a postgame interview. "But the playoffs is a new season and records go out of the window. We were the perfect example of that last season. We pushed Indiana to seven last season and you never underestimate any team."
Still, the Hawks pushed out to a 2-0 series lead against the Nets and were expected to assert more dominance once they hopped on a plane to Brooklyn. After losing two straight, they instead arrived at a place rife with questions about their position as a contender.
When action kicked off on Wednesday night, the Hawks appeared to be in position to put all doubt to bed. Once again, all was right with the Atlanta Hawks. Their return home worked in concert with a torrid start thanks to their undeniable team-focused approach. Horford maintained his do-everything role and DeMarre Carroll provided under-the-radar scoring as the Hawks pulled away for a 33-16 advantage to end the first quarter.
Then the Nets showed up. As it has all series, Brooklyn refused to go away. Lionel Hollins's team leaked out to an 11-0 run to start the second quarter and found itself back in the game. A bad showing from Hawks backup point guard Dennis Schroder left open the door and Alan Anderson walked right in. He played to a perfect 5-of-5 shooting mark in the quarter and finished the night with 23 points and hit 9-of-11 shots.
Typical of this matchup, which was knotted at 394-393 in scoring after four games, the Hawks won the third quarter. They had received 19 first-half points from Carroll, the most since Mike Bibby posted 18 in two quarters of a 2009 playoff series, and assisted on 14-of-21 made field-goal attempts to no avail. Unlike their first six wins against the Nets this season, it was no longer good enough for the Hawks to just outplay them. Atlanta now needed to play harder than Brooklyn, too.
This became clearer when the Hawks entered the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead. Anderson ceded control of the Nets scoring load to Jarrett Jack, who posted 12 of his 18 points in the fourth. He had help from Joe Johnson, who scored 10 of his 18 in the fourth, as well.
The Hawks reeled as the Nets mimicked a theme that played out in this series before. They had gotten down only to respond with a late push and pull out a win. If Atlanta wanted to reclaim control of this series, it could not let that scenario play out again. Brooklyn cut the lead to 90-89 before Atlanta finally answered. The Hawks put on a 17-8 run to close the game and take a 3-2 lead in a series it was expected to dominate.
"If you're not ready to play Game 5 of the NBA playoffs, you're not a real basketball player," Carroll said in a postgame interview. "I think everybody just came out, not only myself, my whole team, we came out with a fire up under us, and I think our crowd was great, got us going. I think that was the biggest thing for us, just come out to a better start and be the more aggressive team tonight."
Contributions came from each Hawks starter along the way. Carroll scored 24 and Kyle Korver added 17 points, but Horford and Jeff Teague led the way down the stretch. Teague had 20 points and posted nine in the final period, while Horford played through an aggravated right pinky injury to produce 20 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists.
More importantly, Horford hit two late midrange buckets after shooting only 35.7% on jump shots in the series. Lopez allowed Horford to shoot from deep midrange, and he wasn't surprised by the move to back off a shot he typically hits.
"But you know what in this series I haven't [been making it] and he's been living with that," Horford said in a postgame interview with TNT's David Aldridge. "Luckily, I got my rhythm back and I made shots when I needed to."
With the exception of a tough Game 3 performance, Horford remained steady for the duration. He was good but never great before Wednesday night. Through it all, he stayed the course and made the right play. Horford smiled after he put forth his best effort of the series. The Hawks had secured a Game 5 win and moved one game closer to the second round. Horford had earned the opportunity to revel in the moment. Perhaps he'd even earned the chance to do a little posturing, too.