Commentary

After odd night, Hawks get even

Atlanta's first road playoff win since 1997 a strong bounce-back effort against Miami

Originally Published: April 28, 2009
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPN.com

HawksScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty ImagesSolomon Jones, coach Mike Woodson, Mario West and Mike Bibby enjoy the Game 4 win.
MIAMI -- They missed one shot after another. They surrendered two straight four-point plays, forfeiting their momentum. They displayed their inexperience.

But when it was finally over, after the Miami Heat had pushed, prodded and used everything but the temptation of South Beach to distract the youngsters from Atlanta, the Hawks still departed flying high, having escaped with an 81-71 win at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena in Game 4 of this first-round playoff series to reclaim home-court advantage.

"We got the job done," Hawks guard Joe Johnson said. "We came here to get one and we got it. I know it's hard for people to believe. Hell, it might be hard for us to believe. But we did it. Finally."

Now the series is tied 2-2, with Game 5 at Atlanta's Philips Arena on Wednesday night. And if Johnson seems a little too pleased, maybe it's actually appropriate for him to sound that way, as this was the first road playoff win for the Hawks since 1997.

"I was there," Hawks media relations director Arthur Triche laughed afterward. "I'm telling you this because I'm the only individual in this locker room who can say that."

Savor the levity.

You've earned it when you've held Wade to 9-for-26 shooting (22 points). You've earned some boisterous moments when the streaky Heat are limited to 4-of-16 shooting from beyond the arc and 37.7 percent shooting for the game.

Atlanta's bench outscored Miami's bench 25-2. With starting guards Johnson and Mike Bibby distributing the ball, six players finished with double-figure scoring. Reserve center Zaza Pachulia took care of business inside with 12 points and 18 rebounds as the Hawks outrebounded the Heat 40-33.

"We came out with more intensity, ready to play," said Hawks forward Josh Smith, who scored 13 after being dared into trying some ill-advised jump shots. "We didn't do that in Game 3 and that was our problem. We came out focused, determined to right the wrongs we committed, and we did that pretty much for most of the game."

But not all of it.

The Hawks spent the final 3:47 of the first half illuminating how painful a team it can be to watch for anyone wishing them good fortune.

Up 44-23, a near catastrophic collapse began unfolding.

After a couple of free throws by Wade, then a couple of more by James Jones, Wade, with one simple play, instigated a series of events that threatened to unravel the Hawks. As Bibby chased Jones, Wade set a hard pick on Bibby, leading to a 3-pointer by Jones, who was fouled on the play.

Frustrated, Bibby committed an offensive foul on the ensuing in-bounds play, and then chased Jones down in the corner and fouled him on another 3-pointer, handing the Heat their second straight four-point play in a span of 11 seconds.

Before the Hawks knew what hit them, the Heat had completed a quick 14-0 run. By halftime, the spurt was 19-2, turning a blowout into a nail-biter -- just the kind the Hawks have tended to lose over the past decade or so.

"The way we ended [the first] half was inexcusable," said Hawks forward Maurice Evans. "Coach [Mike Woodson] came in here and told us there was no excuse for us to be in this position. That we had to get off our [backsides] and make up for the position we put ourselves in. That there was a game to win. I spoke up. Josh Smith spoke up. The rest of the guys responded with good defense, key stops and some offense when we needed it most. Thank goodness."

Some would say it was easy for Atlanta to respond because Wade was suffering from back spasms.

"No excuses," Wade said.

Others may say the Heat took Game 4 for granted after two straight wins, believing the Hawks' youth and recent playoff history meant good news for them.

"Nah," Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. "No factor at all. We just didn't make stops."

And Atlanta did, particularly against Jermaine O'Neal. They suffocated the lane to deny easy baskets and crashed the boards to deny second shots. It helped that the Hawks led for the entire game, which meant they never had to play from behind.

"That was the key," Johnson said. "Again, our intensity was there. That wasn't the case in Game 3, not even in Game 2 back at our house. This win was important for so many reasons for us psychologically. But mainly because it gives us the home-court advantage again. Now it's in our hands."

Yes, it is. Just like they wanted it to be all season as they pursued that No. 4 seeding in the playoffs.

Before, that is, they lost the home-court advantage in Game 2 ... and gained it back in Monday's must-have Game 4.

Stephen A. Smith is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."