Commentary

Hawks close to making Magic disappear

Originally Published: April 24, 2011
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

Joe Johnson Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesJoe Johnson and the Hawks are soaring out of the playoff spotlight, taking a 3-1 lead on the Magic.

ATLANTA -- So just who are these Atlanta Hawks?

After netting his fourth consecutive 20-point game off the bench on Sunday, Jamal Crawford would tell you these Hawks are the hottest team in the playoffs that no one's really talking about.

After pushing out to a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Orlando Magic, Joe Johnson would tell you these Hawks aren't those old Hawks who were blown out and swept out of the playoffs last season by this very same opponent.

And after seeing his team stumble into the playoffs having lost the final six games of the regular season, coach Larry Drew would tell you these Hawks are proudly bipolar and capable of flipping on the proverbial switch when necessary to get the job done.

Speaking of necessary, the scoreboard at Philips Arena late Sunday night told us all something about these Hawks I assume many never expected to hear -- or see -- at any point this postseason, because we thought we knew the Hawks.

But there it was -- in high definition -- on the jumbo screen after Atlanta closed out an 88-85 victory against Orlando in Game 4 of their best-of-seven, first-round series. Two words stood out among all of the others: If Necessary.

"Get your playoff tickets tonight for Game 6 -- if necessary. Be a part of the White-Out/Dwight-Out."

Those were going to be some tough tickets to sell.

No, not because Atlanta has the reputation for being one of the least fanatical sports towns among the nation's larger cities. These Hawks fans who packed the arena to watch their team hold serve at home aren't those ones who used to disguise themselves as empty seats.

But the reason why it's a safe bet not many of those Game 6 tickets were sold as the crowd streamed out of Philips on Sunday night was because these Hawks might not necessarily be back to play Game 6. If the first three games of this series were reserved to examine what's wrong with the Magic, the tide changed in Game 4 -- or, at least it should have -- to comprehend what's going right with the Hawks.

For the fourth time in as many games, Atlanta built a double-digit lead over the Magic. For the fourth time this series, the Hawks were the team with better balance and more confidence. And for the third time in four meetings, they were the team that won the game.

Really want to know what's separating these teams this series, one the Hawks have a chance to close out in Game 5 on Tuesday night in Orlando? It's in the messages that were quickly delivered in their respective locker rooms after Sunday's game.

The theme for the Hawks was resilience after they fought off a late Magic rally and shut the door on Dwight Howard and his struggling supporting cast yet again. Drew recalled the scene in Atlanta's huddle during a timeout after the Magic erased a 16-point deficit and tied the game in the fourth.

"The first thing I did was just took a look at all the guys' faces, just to see," Drew said. "And I didn't see a sense of panic, which was a great sign for me. I know, in the past, this team has been in those type of situations and did not respond well. After the timeout, I saw the guys huddle and they were still in tune with what we were doing. Their confidence level was not shattered one bit."

Therein lies the difference between those Hawks we thought we knew, and these Hawks who are thoroughly introducing themselves to the Magic.

"We're starting to grow," Drew said. "We're starting to really, really grow in areas we really need to, particularly in the playoffs. We responded to their run and everybody stayed the course. I was very happy to see that, in the past, where we probably would have panicked, we maintained our composure."

And while Drew was reminding his players after the game of their resilience in that pivotal moment in the fourth quarter, the message in the Magic's postgame locker room was about reservations.

Reservations as in travel itinerary. Itinerary as in who needed to cancel and who needed to come.

Dwight Howard has been everything for the Magic in this series, seeing another monster performance go in vain after he finished with 29 points, 17 rebounds and eight more turnovers.

On Sunday night, he was their travel agent, too.

"I just told them that if they didn't believe we can still win this series, stay in Atlanta," Howard said of his message to teammates in a dejected Orlando locker room.

Considering the way the Magic have shot the ball in this series -- just 39 percent overall Sunday and 2 of 23 from 3-point range -- you could wonder if some of Howard's teammates ever arrived in Atlanta for the past two games. The Hawks were balanced by 25 points from Crawford, 20 from Johnson and 14 apiece from Al Horford and Kirk Hinrich.

Meanwhile, Howard was surrounded by Hedo "'2-for-12" Turkoglu, an 0-for-6 night from J.J. "Forget It" Redick and Crawford highlight prop Jameer Nelson, who missed nine of his 12 shots.

In addition to wondering who are these Hawks, a just-as-mind-boggling question is what happened to the Magic? Howard sees a fundamental difference between the Hawks his team beat by an average of more than 20 points in the playoffs last season, and the team Orlando is struggling against now.

"They're playing more together, moving the ball," Howard said of the Hawks. "All their guys are stepping up and making plays at the right time. Last year, it just didn't seem that way."

When it comes to execution on offense, this year's Magic are last year's Hawks. Well, with one exception, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said.

"We don't have the Jamal Crawford or a Joe Johnson, guys who can break you down off the dribble," Van Gundy said in what seemed like a subtle swipe at his limited roster.

So Van Gundy knows his team has only one adjustment to make in order to get back into the series.

Make shots.

"We're running out of time," Van Gundy said. "We don't have another two weeks. We need to knock down shots on Tuesday. ... Deal with it and make shots. It's not about pressure. It's about stepping up and doing what you do."

If not, there won't be any need for the Hawks to print those tickets for Game 6 back in Atlanta.

The Hawks stole home-court advantage in the series by winning Game 1 in Orlando last week, so they have both the experience and confidence to repeat the task.

One thing these Hawks have that last year's Hawks didn't is big-picture perspective.

"As you've seen in the previous playoff games already, Miami had an opportunity to close their series out as well as Chicago," Josh Smith said of both the Heat and Bulls losing Game 4s after being in position to sweep their series over the weekend. "We know their back is against the wall. We're going to have to play our best basketball of the series to close this team out."

The Hawks' mission isn't to convert any skeptics or doubters. They're fine with the national attention in these playoffs being focused elsewhere.

They're no longer the little team that could. They're the confident squad that's proving they can.

"We're not anxious or pressured to make anybody believe in this team," Smith said. "We know what we have in this locker room. It's some pretty good talent."

The Hawks' 3-1 series lead might come as a bit of a surprise to some.

Not to them. It's par for the course. Atlanta beat Orlando three out of four times in the regular season.

That's also the case so far in these playoffs.

"We're very confident right now, understanding in the regular season we had success against this team," Johnson said. "The past two years, we've gotten to the second round and we haven't gotten what we want. We came into this series with the mindset we'd stay confident. So we're just trying to ride this wave right now and trying to get us another victory."

No, these Hawks aren't those Hawks from last season.

They're not even the Hawks from the end of the regular season.

Whoever they are, one thing has become clear in this series.

They're one step closer to potentially wreaking havoc in the East.