CLEVELAND — The Atlanta Hawks are facing a sweep in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT), and it seems to have confirmed the doubts of those who didn’t believe in their regular season success.
The Hawks won 60 games (going 33-2 stretch at one point) and ranked in the top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency with a system that stressed balance and cohesion. And here they are, down 0-3 to a team that’s relying heavily on the best player in the world.
Conclusion? Talent beats system, and the most important thing in postseason basketball is having a go-to guy.
The Hawks don’t want to hear that noise.
“You can’t judge three games over 82 games,” backup guard Shelvin Mack said Monday. “Our record speaks for itself. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get it done.”
They almost figured out a way on Sunday. Playing in Cleveland without Kyle Korver or Al Horford (for the second half), they withstood a historical performance from LeBron James and had opportunities to make this a 2-1 series.
“We know we can compete at a high level,” Hawks point guard Jeff Teague said. “We know we can beat this team.”
Teague had a good look to win the game in regulation. Mack had a wide-open corner 3-pointer to tie the game at the end of overtime. The NBA postseason isn’t nearly as random as its baseball counterpart, but there still can be a fine line between winning and losing each game.
The Hawks were on the wrong side of chance on Sunday, but came out believing that they have control over the outcome of these games.
“[In Game 3] we were more decisive,” forward Paul Millsap said. “We were attacking. If we’re open, we shoot it. Drive, pass it, just more decisiveness.”
Of course, with the notion that playing with more purpose gave them a chance to win in Game 3 comes the realization that doing the same in the two games at home could have made this a totally different series. But there’s no going back, and there’s probably no coming back either. No NBA team in history has ever come back from down 0-3 to win a best-of-seven series.
Still, the Hawks aren’t going to come out of this series with the belief that they need to do things differently. Injuries have taken a toll, and really, they only have to look back at The 2014 Finals to know that balance and cohesion can win championships.
“Every team has different ways to build and different ways to give themselves what they feel is their best chance,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Monday. “There’s no doubt the way that we built the team with a lot of really good players, a lot of high-character guys, we feel like we can compete and play with anybody in the league. They’ve done it a different way, and it’s a great battle.”
If you’re taking the long view, a loss in the conference finals would be a step in the process. The Hawks have two key free agents — Millsap and DeMarre Carroll — this summer. But they have the ability to retain both, pick up where they left off, address the minor flaws that have been exposed in these playoffs, and keep doing what they’re doing.
“We feel like we can play that style of basketball throughout the course of the playoffs,” Millsap said. “Thus far we’ve been hanging on. We’ve still got another game to go out there and prove it.”
They’re not going to prove it one night. But Game 4 is another opportunity to show the world the value of the system.
“Obviously, someone’s going to win or lose,” Budenholzer said, “but this is the way we’re built. We believe in it. We think we can win at a high level, and we’ll continue to do that.”