Al Horford's injury scare exposed the truth about just how fragile a playoff run can be, even for a team as well-rounded as the Hawks.
The Hawks are the quintessential team, a group brought together through long, winding roads that led to Atlanta and these NBA playoffs. But before moves were made to acquire Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll and draft Jeff Teague, there was Al Horford. And, as recently as the 2013-14 season, the Hawks went as Horford did.
That year the Hawks' prized center went down with his second torn pectoral muscle and played only 29 games. The Hawks, as a result, played average basketball. They finished 38-44 on the season and the Indiana Pacers dispatched them in the first round of the playoffs.
So when Horford suffered a dislocated right pinky after attempting to snag a rebound late in Sunday's 99-92 Game 1 win over the Brooklyn Nets, a sense emerged of just how fragile a playoff run can be, even for a Hawks team that believes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Horford grabbed the hand and immediately walked back to the locker room, showing shades of previous seasons lost to injury. Horford did return to the bench with ice on his finger and even played out the game's final moments, but how the injury will affect him going forward remains to be seen.
“I’ve had something similar to this, not as bad as this,” Horford said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But we’ll see. The good thing is that the x-rays came back negative.”
Perhaps that uncertainty fed into the eerie feeling that remained, despite all signs pointing to the Hawks as being one of the better-rounded teams in the league. Atlanta led the NBA in assist percentage, took more uncontested shots than any other team and sent four players to February's All-Star Game. They all performed well on Sunday, with the exception of Millsap, who is recovering from a shoulder injury.
Korver led the Hawks with 21 points and Carroll and Teague each scored 17. Horford finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Millsap struggled a bit on the night. Korver hammered home the point that one player's problems do not disrupt the Hawks' collective approach.
"This is what we've done all year," Korver said in the postgame press conference. "We're not just one person on this team. We're not playing hero ball. We go out there and play as a unit and there's lot of nights when guys don't shoot the ball well or don't play as well as they'd like to."
It was the same drill on Sunday, when the Hawks jumped out to a 32-20 lead and finished the first quarter with eight assists on 11 made field goals. That run was punctuated by Horford's block of an Earl Clark jumpshot attempt. He stood and flexed toward the crowd after the ball sailed into the stands. He followed that play with a midrange jumper and grabbed three rebounds in the final two minutes of the period.
The Hawks' second quarter produced the best moment of the game on a decidedly Hawks play, when Teague threw the ball back to Korver, who bypassed an open three-pointer to hit an open Carroll under the rim.
That assurance was short-lived. The Nets backed their way into the playoffs, yet they managed to play like a team that reset for the playoffs in some portions of Sunday's game. Of particular concern was the Hawks' general dominance of the regular-season series. Atlanta averaged 114.0 points in four games and won every meeting by a 17.3 average margin of victory. The game appeared headed in that direction after a first quarter in which the Nets posted zero assists, committed six turnovers and shot 0-of-6 from the three-point line.
Then, Deron Williams emerged to spark the Nets in the third quarter. He posted five consecutive points at one point as the Nets scored seven unanswered to cut the deficit to 57-54. The Hawks responded by bringing the lead to a game-high 16, though the Nets would make a final push and put a scare into Atlanta in the final quarter. Atlanta relied on Teague to quiet Brooklyn down the stretch, as he scored its final six points and held off a rally that brought the score as close as 97-92 with less than a minute left.
Nothing had quite the chilling effect that Horford's injury did, though. He returned to the game with 5:52 left in the fourth quarter and attempted two jump shots. Horford didn't look the same in his final five minutes of play, however, and neither attempt ended well. Horford admitted that the finger gave him trouble.
“It definitely affected me,” Horford said of the injury, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Having it taped like that around my finger, especially on my shooting hand, was very uncomfortable to shoot the ball.”
For now, all the Hawks can do is wait for Horford to return to form. "We are hopeful he will be fine going forward," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told The AJC.