Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Along with all other Hawks fans, I went through this when Al Horford went down with a torn pectoral early in the season. Without our steadiest on-court presence and defensive anchor, it seemed like the season was pretty much shot. Improbably, even after losing Zaza Pachulia depleted their entire supply of quality bigs, the Hawks continued playing above-average basketball most nights and eked out home-court advantage for the opening playoff series with Boston. I figured that was about as far as we were taking this ride, and picked the C's in seven in my round one preview. Then we took game one. With Ray Allen's ankles acting their (advanced) age and Rondo getting a DNP: "I stupidly chest-bumped a ref and got myself suspended, thus forcing my team to start Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus as the back court in a playoff game," there was suddenly the very real possibility that we could win game 2 and head to TD Garden up 2-0. Nobody's kidding themselves that we could knock off The Heat in a series, but getting to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed feasible. Rondo aside, the Hawks are decidedly younger and faster than Boston, and with the compressed season having exhausted the league more than usual, it was possible that we could trump a superior team by just running them out of the gym.
You have to understand how much that would mean to Hawks fans. Boston-Atlanta is not a rivalry, per se. Certainly no Celtics fan would acknowledge it as such. But the C's are always the team standing in our way come playoff time; they are the authors of our misfortune. (Or co-writers, I suppose. We're pretty good at scripting our own basketball disasters in Atlanta.) A brief history:
In 1986, an electrifying Hawks team featuring the diminutive (and totally awesome) Spud Webb and the massive (and totally awesome) Dominique Wilkins (and point-guarded by Doc Rivers of all people) made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Atlanta was delirious. The Falcons were awful, the Braves stunk, the Flames had left for Canada in '80, but here, finally, was a modicum of sports success for one of our teams. Then we ran into the perfectly-attenuated basketball machine that was the '86 Celtics. Bird, McHale, Chief, DJ, Walton. They absolutely took us apart, magnanimously allowing us a solitary victory in one of the most lopsided playoff drubbings of all time en route to the title. It was a stylized execution, and not even 'Nique's most thunderous jams could mitigate the humiliation and futility of it all.
In 1988, we met Boston again in the Eastern Semis. To say we acquitted ourselves better in this one would be an egregious understatement. We pushed the C's all seven games in a truly spectacular series that became an instant classic. Game seven is immortalized in the NBA canon simply as "The Bird/'Nique duel." I still remember sitting on the couch with my dad watching that game in total awe, enraptured by the heights of excellence to which those two guys pushed each other. Seriously, click the link. That was a phenomenal game. Which, you know, we lost. It is positively soul-crushing to watch your team play that well and still come up short. Stupid Celtics. Stupid Bird.
(Insert long gap where neither Boston or Atlanta were any good at professional basketball.)
2008. The Hawks snuck into the eighth seed on the strength of a promising young core (Horford, J-Smoove, and Joe Johnson) that became the nucleus of our current iteration. The newly reconstructed and revitalized Celtics, a 66-win juggernaut of a team, regarded this as a perfunctory exercise at best; a mere formality. Atlanta showed them differently. We scrapped and clawed and gave Boston all they wanted for seven games. Joe Johnson shot the lights out. Josh Smith did Josh Smith things. Zaza Pachulia endeared himself to KG and the Garden crowd. (Not really at all.) Truthfully, it may have been the greatest totally-inconsequential-in-hindsight series ever played. And, of course, we lost. Again
It always goes that way with us and Boston. Which is why I wouldn't care if we got swept in the second round it we could, just this once, beat the Celtics in a playoff series. I don't think that's too much to ask from the sports gods, right? ... Right?
Last night wasn't much of a surprise. Anyone who is even tangentially familiar with the Hawks will tell you that we have a horrible tendency to play mediocre basketball when we think we ought to win a game without too much trouble. (See: getting smacked down, at home, by a Raptors team starting three guys on 10-day contracts. God, that game was awful.) True to form, we came out flat and stayed that way for most of Game 2. Also, when Paul Pierce is at his utmost Truth-iness like he was last night, there's just not much you can do. Number 34 smoked us, pure and simple. The loss I can handle. Or could have, if not for that sickening, dizzying feeling I was talking about earlier.
I wasn't expecting to feel that way again this year. We've already had more than our fair share of injuries this season, thank you very much. So when the first inklings started filtering into my brain, I did my best to ignore it. Josh Smith was clearly not 100% last night. Hell, he hasn't been for much of the season, but he's soldiered through because there were stretches this year when he was our only reliable offensive weapon and we needed him. As he dragged a bad left knee around through much of the fourth quarter, I started to worry. Without Smoove, it would be categorically impossible to advance past Boston. But if we could just get through the game and give him a few days' rest, it might be alright. And right about then, that damnable feeling crept up behind me and every other Hawks fan with a neat length of lead pipe and started laying to. With a shade under five minutes left on the clock, Josh Smith collided with Kevin Garnett, and was promptly taken to the locker room for the remainder of the game. On the replay, you could clearly see that left knee giving out on impact. Not much, just a tic, but it was moving in a way that normal knees do not.
The official word from the Hawks today is that J-Smoove has a sprained left knee, but no serious structural damage. He is questionable for Game 3. If we lose that game, I'm 99.9999% positive we will lose the series. Even if he can go, a less-than-healthy Josh Smith is a worrisome proposition. The man's entire game is predicated on explosiveness and preternatural athleticism. If that knee prevents him from flying around the court in his accustomed manner, he will become a very ordinary basketball player, and possibly something less. And the Hawks cannot win with that version of Josh Smith on the floor. We need the high-velocity, high-altitude monster that put up 16 points, 12 boards, and 5 dimes last night before that ill-fated fourth quarter. Otherwise, we don't have a prayer.
So I'm pouring one out for you tonight, Chicago. (Pounds chest in solidarity.) Smoove may not be quite the same caliber as D-Rose, but our outlook is equally bleak without him. If we see you in round 2, let's hug it out before we try to knock each other off. After all, when our teams get snake-bitten like this, we all deserve a little sympathy.