Commentary

Johnson, Hawks finish off Heat

Originally Published: May 3, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Joe JohnsonScott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesJoe Johnson went 6-for-8 from behind the 3-point line to power Atlanta's attack.

ATLANTA -- Joe Johnson took a pass in the corner from Mike Bibby, splashed in his third straight 3-pointer, and then -- in a rare display of emotion from the Hawks' taciturn star -- pumped his fist and let out a roar.

His slump was over. And so was this series.

Atlanta's All-Star guard shot 39.1 percent in the first six games, but he shook off an 0-for-5 first quarter to hit three straight 3s in the second. That sparked a 15-4 second-quarter run, which -- stop me if you've heard this before -- gave the Hawks a double-digit lead they would not relinquish the rest of the night. Atlanta won Game 7, 91-78, as the least competitive seven-game series in NBA history ended with yet another rout.

The Hawks led by as many as 29 in the fourth quarter, and the series didn't have a lead change after the first quarter in any of the seven games. This one essentially ended after Johnson's 3-point explosion -- which included one shot from several feet beyond the arc with Dwyane Wade right in his face.

"I think I was just more aggressive," Johnson said. "I haven't shot a 3 that deep in quite some time. I just said, 'Forget it,' and launched it. I was able to make it and kind of get into a little rhythm."

That little rhythm produced 27 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting, and it exposed one of the underlying truths of this series: If Atlanta's All-Star could match Miami's All-Star shot for shot, as he finally did Sunday, there was no way Wade's supporting cast could lift him past Johnson's.

Wade wasn't bad, with 31 points of his own, but he needed 25 shots to get them. He outscored the rest of his starting lineup, which mustered just 26 points; the bench did little as well until a burst of cosmetic scoring late in the fourth quarter, long after Wade and Johnson had both checked out of the game.

The Heat were so desperate for offense that rookie Michael Beasley started the second half, but he contributed three turnovers and only three points in that stanza as Miami put up a mere 52 points in the first three frames; though he finished with 17 points, 10 of them came in garbage time.

"I'm so proud of these guys tonight," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "Our defense was right on the money."

In contrast to Miami's one-man show, the Hawks got production from several sources. Josh Smith added 21 points, nine rebounds and zero between-the-legs dunk attempts; Flip Murray added 15 off the bench; and Atlanta got a boost from the return of center and vocal leader Al Horford, who missed Game 6 with an ankle sprain. Meanwhile, Atlanta's ball movement was vastly improved -- even spectacular at times -- as their 18 assists included several of the five-passes-and-a-wide-open-J variety.

"Once we started to make shots, Joe was drawing double teams," Woodson said. "I've been harping all year, when guys are doubled, somebody's open. That first pass out of the double team might not be the home run pass; it's the next pass that leads to something good. I thought we made two or three extra passes and got great looks tonight."

Miami seemed sluggish all night, but most notably late in the third quarter, when the Heat still had a chance to get back in the game. Two empty trips in particular will haunt them: Wade had an unforced eight-second violation when the Heat had a chance to pull within single digits, and a minute later Joel Anthony was so late coming out to set a screen that the Heat couldn't run a play to the end of the quarter.

Replays showed that the eight-second violation might have been aided by yet another clock error in Atlanta's Philips Arena, which has become notorious for such snafus. The shot clock appeared to have 22 on it when the play began.

"I'm not that slow," Wade said of the error.

"A couple of tough plays right here; that's the breaks of the game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We still had two or three other opportunities to get that [lead] from 11 or 13 [points] and break it to about eight or so, and never were able to get over that mental hump."

Things might have been different for Miami if Jermaine O'Neal had been able to play, but he played only 42 seconds, limited by the effects of a concussion given by a Zaza Pachulia elbow in Game 5. The Heat took the high road in public, but privately, Heat officials were upset about it, saying Pachulia led with his elbow on the play in question and should have been penalized.

O'Neal implored the Heat's medical staff to let him play and finally persuaded them, but he shouldn't have been out there; in fact, this episode opens an entirely separate can of worms about how the league deals with head injuries in general. He seemed in a fog and was pulled after picking up two quick fouls, and when he began showing symptoms on the bench, he was shut down for the night. Afterward, he was seen walking gingerly toward the team bus.

"I pleaded with everyone to give me a shot," O'Neal said.

The win puts the Hawks into the second round for the first time in a decade, and they'll be heavy underdogs against the Cavs in a series that begins Tuesday in Cleveland. Of course, Atlanta was in a similar situation a year ago when it took Boston to a seventh game in the first round, and hopes the experience will help this time around.

"We've grown as a team," Woodson said. "I look back to the Celtics series last year -- they taught us how to play playoff basketball. Unfortunately, we had to finish it off on their floor in Game 7, and it was a nasty feeling. But the fact they taught us … [our players] thought if they had another opportunity, anything is possible."

Most experts don't think beating the Cavs is possible, actually, but the Hawks will get a chance to prove them wrong in 48 hours. In the meantime, they can savor the franchise's first win in a seven-game series since 1970.

All because the guy who signed with a 13-win team four years ago broke out when they needed him most.

"I envisioned this," Johnson said, "that we would be playing in front of a packed house, and that the fans would be going crazy."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.