Sunday, May 2, 2010
Hawks advance to see the Orlando Magic in the East Semis
ATLANTA -- With more than three minutes to go, the Atlanta Hawks began pulling their starters. Al Horford flapped his hands, egging on the already raucous crowd. Joe Johnson clapped for the fans, then dropped his head in what looked more like relief than celebration.
The Hawks were moving on in the playoffs. What a contrast from the last game in Atlanta.
After keeping their season alive with a gutty win in Milwaukee, the Hawks made sure the Bucks were in no position to duplicate their improbable Game 5 road win. Playoff rookie Jamal Crawford scored 22 points, Horford put up a double-double and Atlanta pulled away for a 95-74 win Sunday that gave the Hawks a 4-3 triumph in the tougher-than-expected series.
Last Wednesday, the favored Hawks squandered a nine-point lead in the final four minutes, bickered among themselves in the closing seconds and left the court to boos from their own fans, down 3-2 in the series.
This time, nothing but cheers.
"We let 'em down in Game 5," Josh Smith said. "We enjoyed every minute of this."
The Hawks can only hope they didn't expend too much energy in the only first-round series to go the distance.
Third-seeded Atlanta advanced to face No. 2 Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Magic, who beat the Hawks in three out of four regular-season meetings and have been resting since a sweep of Charlotte last Monday, will host the first two games of the series beginning Tuesday night.
"We've got to be more hungry and determined to get over the hump," Johnson said. "We can't just beat this team based on talent. We've got to play harder."
They could get away with less than 100 percent against the Bucks, whose hopes of a playoff upset were essentially undone with about two weeks to go in the regular season when Andrew Bogut tumbled to the court and ripped apart his right arm.
The 7-foot center was actually in uniform for the final game, but that was a mere formality -- he was done for the year, watching with a large cast on his hand.
"We can't think about all the ifs," Carlos Delfino said. "Yes, we missed his presence in the paint. But glory to the guys who kept fighting. We just tried to be as positive as we possibly could."
Not much to be positive about in the season finale. The Bucks made less than a third of their shots (28 of 86), were blocked eight times and, clearly rattled, threw up at least three airballs. They simply didn't have enough weapons to cope with an Atlanta team that was fired up and ready to give its best.
Rookie Brandon Jennings led the way with just 15 points, and he needed 18 shots to score that many.
"I think we were missing one piece, and that was Bogut," Jennings said. "I wanted to walk out sad, but I had to keep my head up because we were down a couple players [Michael Redd also sustained a season-ending injury]. We did the best we could.
"We showed a lot of people that the Milwaukee Bucks can actually hang in this league."
Crawford, appearing in the playoffs for the first time in his 10-year career, looked like a rookie through the first five games of the series. He was at his lowest after a 4-for-18 shooting performance in Game 5, when the Hawks squandered a nine-point lead in the final four minutes to put the Bucks in control of the series.
But Crawford scored 24 points in Game 6, and the Hawks clamped down defensively for an 83-69 win that sent the series back to Atlanta for Game 7.
The decider was no contest. The Hawks led by double figures for nearly all the last three quarters and pushed the margin as high as 24 late in the game.
"We going to Disney World," the public address announcer screamed to the sellout crowd of 19,241 as the final seconds ticked off.
Crawford hit 8 of 16 shots, including a pair of 3-pointers. Horford worked hard at both ends of the court, finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Mike Bibby scored 15 points and hit several big shots, including an off-balance, one-handed fling from 20 feet that just beat the shot clock. Smith also had 15 despite early foul trouble, and Atlanta romped even though Johnson, its best player, was held to 8 points on 4-for-14 shooting.
"It's just so much fun," said Crawford, who had played on dismal teams his entire career until getting traded to the Hawks last summer. "It's like walking on air."
The Hawks had plenty of Game 7 experience, having gone the distance in the opening round each of the last two years. For the second year in a row, they got to play the decisive game on their home court. The result was the same.
After cruising past Miami 91-78 in last year's Game 7, the Hawks were even more dominant against a Milwaukee team that wasn't expected to do much in the playoffs. In reality, this series was decided Friday night -- Atlanta's Game 6 win in Wisconsin.
Breathing a sigh of relief, the Hawks can now hope for a better second-round showing than 2009, when they were swept in four straight games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Horford knows he'll play a huge role going up against Dwight Howard.
"It's been a good season," Horford said, "but there's more to this team than just this."
The Bucks, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 with a promising nucleus of Jennings, Bogut and John Salmons, can't wait for next season.
Hopefully, at full strength.
"We made it a tough series," Delfino said. "To go seven games, I think we did pretty good."