HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — When the playoff pairings came into focus late in the regular season, we knew there was the potential for this when the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks got locked into the No. 4-5 battle in the Eastern Conference.
An era was coming to an end. A five-year run for one of these two franchises would continue on for at least another series and that same five-year run (that began in their epic first-round series in 2008) for the other franchise would have run its course.
Well, it’s time for the Hawks to face the reality of their own situation and turn the page. The Hawks are facing more than just elimination after their disastrous 101-79 Game 4 showing in Boston Sunday night. Most compassionate observers turned away from when the Celtics’ lead grew to 37 points … with more than a quarter and a half to play remaining.
How many times can you hear about a team talk about “not responding” or “we just didn’t have it” or “our energy and effort was nonexistent” in a big game situation before it sinks in?
The Hawks have dropped 12 playoff games by 20-plus points since 2008, a staggering number that does not include all of the games they lost by 16, 17, 18 and 19 points.
They’d fight back with stats of their own — such as along with the Celtics and Lakers, they are one of just three teams to reach the second round in each of the past three seasons. But that would foolishly suggest that the Hawks belong in the same sentence with two franchises that have won championships in the past four seasons.
The Celtics won it all in 2008 while the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. The Hawks, for all of their accomplishments during this same stretch, have been escorted from the postseason in an ugly fashion each and every time, without once truly breaking through with this current core group.
They’ll tell anyone willing to listen that this series is far from over at 3-1 with Game 5 Tuesday night at Philips Arena. And with their history against these Celtics, it might be worth a listen. They played seven games in 2008, with each team taking turns ruling their home floors all the way through to Game 7.
But this time is different. As much as you’d like to believe these limping Hawks have a chance to make a series out of this one, the stench of inevitability is floating in the air after that Game 4 debacle in Boston.
Even if the Hawks find a way to push this thing to a Game 6, it’s hard to see them coming all the way back from this hole and winning the series — they’d have to become the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series.
Their core includes All-Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford, Josh Smith, their best player during this injury-plagued season that has seen Horford play in just 12 games (the 12th coming in Game 4 after a four-month layoff after surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle), third-year point guard Jeff Teague and former No. 2 overall pick and current sixth man Marvin Williams. (You could add veteran center Zaza Pachulia to that list as well, since he is one of the five holdovers from that 2008 series.)
Viewed as one of the league’s most promising young groups a couple of years ago, the Hawks refused to part ways with any of that core in an effort to tweak their flawed chemistry and risk getting better by letting a valuable piece go.
Of course, we have the luxury of hindsight right now. And it’s easier to point out the flaws of this group as their end draws near. But the Hawks’ front office (spanning two regimes, both Billy Knight‘s and, currently, Rick Sund‘s) continuously stood their ground, opting to change coaches (from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew) and swap the role players and supporting cast while maintaining the core.
(We’ll spare you the standard line of citing all of the botched lottery picks, empty free agent signings and failed point guard experiments.)
You hold on tight to that core when you believe they form the basis of a championship team, not a team good enough to make the playoffs and maybe the second round. Draft picks have come and gone, opportunities to trade one of those core players have come and gone and opportunities to let them walk via free agency have come and gone.
Each and every time the Hawks’ brain trust weighed their options, they decided against a radical or even significant move in favor of the stability and safety net that comes with a guaranteed playoff team — that’s smart business in the front-office world, but not exactly a move that inspires or intrigues an already fickle local fan base.
The fact of the matter is risks must be taken if a franchise has its sights set on the ultimate reward. The Celtics parted ways with Kendrick Perkins, one of their mainstays from their two trips to The Finals. It was a move that did not meet with the approval of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Even Celtics coach Doc Rivers struggled to hide his unease with the move when it went down.
But Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is a risk-taker who understands that bold leadership is the path to greater success, knowing full well that whether it works out or not is on his head.
Perkins was traded to the Thunder, a team with a younger core much closer in makeup to the one the Hawks had a few years ago, when the window of opportunity for making a move was much greater.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti traded former lottery pick and starting small forward Jeff Green to get his hands on Perkins, the gritty big man he felt completed his team. It was a calculated risk that helped transform the Thunder from a talented and promising young outfit into a championship contender that made the Western Conference finals last season and is one of a handful of teams now capable of reaching The Finals this year.
Those are just two examples of teams the Hawks consider contemporaries that have made the hard choices with their core groups, hard choices the Hawks avoided in the past and will have to make in coming weeks and months.