On some level, it was fitting that the Atlanta Hawks' first trip to the conference finals since 1970—when it was still called the division finals—was mucked up right until the very end, with officials calling off a Paul Pierce three-pointer, ending his run of late-game heroics and awarding the Hawks with a 94–91 Game 6 win.
Glance at the surface of the Hawks' résumé and you might see a juggernaut. They did win 60 regular season games and pushed through two opponents to meet up with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.Take a closer look at the journey Atlanta took and you'll see far more adversity than is typical for a No. 1 seed with such credentials.
The Hawks have completed the playoffs sojourn we all expected; it just took a little more elbow grease than predicted. Questions have swirled about their place as contenders since the start of the season. And while they remain in position to contend, they did not reach the finals without facing serious hardship.
Atlanta struggled with a Brooklyn Nets team that backed into the postseason, eventually winning out in six games to take on the Washington Wizards. Similarly, it took six nearly unwatchable games for the Hawks to close out and advance past the Wizards. Washington proved to be a tougher foe, however, with its upstart backcourt and wily veteran Pierce, who is tough to stop until the final tick.
[daily_cut.NBA]Through it all, even in moments when maybe they should have panicked, the Hawks maintained a steely calm. The same applied when Pierce released a three-pointer that could have pushed the game beyond regulation and extended the Wizards' shot at the series. Hawks players rushed Pierce and lunged at his final attempt to no avail. Still, they didn't believe Pierce got the shot off in time, and they were right.
"No, I knew it wasn't good when it left his hand," Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said during an ESPN broadcast. "I heard someone scream to shoot it, so I knew it wasn't good then. But, man, he hits so many big shots. That's crazy."
Take in that final statement. Carroll stared defeat right in the eye without blinking, before he found time to laugh off the possibility of a loss while admiring Pierce's shot-making ability.
What's more, the Wizards gave the Hawks real reason to worry. Their backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal was hot from the start, notching 20 points and eight assists as the Wizards trailed 45-39 at halftime. They accounted for almost every point Washington produced through 24 minutes and didn't cool down once the second half kicked off. Beal ended the game with 29 points, six rebounds, and six assists, while Wall contributed 20 points, six rebounds, and 13 assists.
Washington's rough and tumble frontcourt gave it nothing, but reserves Otto Porter Jr., Kevin Seraphin, and Drew Gooden picked up the slack and made up for what Marcin Gortat and Nene lacked on this night.
Atlanta didn't allow any of that production to affect it. The approach is the approach, and the Hawks stuck to it. That might explain why four Hawks scored double figures, and Carroll, Atlanta's lone non-All-Star starter, led the team with 25 points and provided two of the game's biggest shots on clutch layups.
Paul Millsap got out to a quick start and scored 15 points in the first half. He was followed by Al Horford's six points and four assists. They both gave way to Carroll and Jeff Teague.
While he has played through tough spells in this postseason, Teague orchestrated the perfect floor game late in the Hawks' victory. He drove into the lane and created chaos, coming away with buckets for himself and teammates. More importantly, Teague was there in the final moments for Atlanta. Previously, he decided to let Dennis Schroder finish Game 5 when he struggled, a show of confidence and selflessness rarely seen from All-Stars.
But Teague was on the floor for the Hawks on Friday. In fact, he closed with 20 points and seven assists, and none of them more important than the two plays on which he found Carroll for open layups.
"I saw them helping and I slid to the goal," Carroll said during the ESPN broadcast. "I knew they were going to pay all the attention to Jeff and Kyle and Al and Paul. I did what I do best and just slashed."
Notice that Carroll, one of the stars of Atlanta's postseason thus far, rattled off four names before reaching his own. Such is the way of the Atlanta Hawks. They stand down when teammates have the hotter hand, name others before naming themselves, and emerge from a messy, unsightly basketball series unscathed.