It is official. The Atlanta Hawks are bound for the 2014 NBA Playoffs, and they earned it with a win of their own on the floor. Despite facing the defending NBA Champions in a raucous atmosphere, the Hawks were able to snatch a 98-85 victory over the Miami Heat on Saturday night to clinch the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference.
From the opening tip, it was a playoff-like atmosphere in Philips Arena, as the crowd was in a frenzy, despite the somewhat "balanced" allegiances between the Heat and the Hawks. The early going lived up to that billing, also, as the two teams were tied at 11-11 after the first 4 minutes, and there were several highlight-worthy plays. Miami's offense was clicking as well, as the Heat knocked down their first 6 field goal attempts to put the Hawks in a small hole, but Atlanta (and specifically, Jeff Teague) responded with an 13-2 spurt to grab a 24-16 lead at the 2:01 mark.
The Hawks executed offensively in a huge way in the opening quarter, shooting 61% from the field including 9 points from both DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague, but the momentum wasn't easy to continue in the second, and the issues were on both sides of the floor. Offensively, the shooting slowed down considerably, as the Hawks shot just 7 for 19 (37%) from the floor in the second, but more importantly, the defense wasn't much better, as they followed up a 60% shooting quarter by Miami in the 1st with a 63% effort in the second. Still, Jeff Teague's first half explosion of 14 points and 3 steals was enough to keep the home afloat (even despite 16 points on 7-7 FG from Dwyane Wade) and in a 49-49 tie at the break.
Post-halftime, the Hawks got things rolling in a hurry, as they responded to an opening jumper by Udonis Haslem with a 9-1 run to grab a 6-point lead at 58-52. The offenses of both teams were severely lacking in the period (honestly, much needed after the opening half), and after a few mini-runs in both directions, the Hawks settled in to a 7-point lead as the game headed to the final period. Defensively, it was encouraging to see Atlanta clamp down, especially on Dwyane Wade (0-2 FG, 1 point), and as a team, the Heat shot just 6 for 18 from the floor while committing 5 turnovers in route to only 13 points.
Playing like a team with confidence, the Hawks lengthened their lead to 11 with an influx of energy provided by Lou Williams, but just as some people may have begun to feel comfortable, Miami threatened to make their charge. Dwyane Wade scored 7 consecutive Miami points (in between Millsap free throws and a 3 from Lou) to keep the lead manageable, but when Mike Scott flushed home a dunk on the fastbreak to give the Hawks an 11-point lead with 6:09 remaining, the lead began to feel somewhat real. From there, the lead would never drop below 8 points (as LeBron missed a free throw on a potential 3-point play), and when Lou Williams converted 2 free throws to extend the lead to 12 with 1:18 left, the real threat was extinguished for good.
In the clincher, there were seemingly a million things that went right for the Hawks. First, Jeff Teague was utterly tremendous for the great majority of the game, finishing with 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals to lead the way offensively. More importantly, Teague seemed to push the right buttons at the right time, even competing defensively (for the most part) and setting an attacking tone.
Elsewhere, Lou Williams played 23 enormous minutes of the bench for the Hawks, knocking down multiple earth-shattering shots (7 for 9 from the field, 4 for 4 from three) in route to a 23-point performance. Up front, each of the Hawks options had productive games, as DeMarre Carroll (17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists), Paul Millsap (11 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) and Mike Scott (12 points, 7 rebounds) stepped up in the absence of Pero Antic.
Nothing came incredibly easy against the defending champs (as it shouldn't), but to knock off arguably the best team in the NBA in order to make the playoffs seems almost a touch sweeter. The Hawks will have an interesting week ahead as they face two non-playoff teams before opening their first round series, but until then, this win will be one to savor in preparation for the "second season".