Paul Pierce rained on the Atlanta Hawks' parade again Saturday banking in a game-winning shot to put Atlanta down 2-1 in the series. The shot ended a valiant comeback attempt by Atlanta's reserves who helped engineer a 35-point fourth quarter and erased a 21-point deficit in the process. Let's be clear about one thing though, the Hawks never had any business winning this game so the euphoria of the improbable comeback shouldn't cover up what are some real problems.
Atlanta came into Game 3 rested and with a golden opportunity to snatch control of the series. Washington played without John Wall who may very well be out for the remainder of the playoffs, but instead of seizing the opportunity, Atlanta came out like a flat tire, fell behind early and appeared lifeless throughout. So much so that Mike Budenholzer turned to his bench unit early in the fourth and stuck with them throughout most of the comeback attempt. Keep in mind that was a bench unit who has been one step removed from terrible throughout the majority of the post season.
Perhaps Atlanta's rhythm and game plan were disrupted when Paul Millsap came down with a flu bug and was forced from the team's starting lineup. Budenholzer elected to go big inserting Pero Antic into the starting lineup. That move played into the hands of the Wizards a bit who's on big lineup had yet to be effective in the series. After two dismal games, Nene scored eight of his 17 points in the first quarter and the Wizards were off and running.
Let's forget about Xs and Os for a moment though because ultimately I'm not sure how much they mattered in Game 3. As a fan watching at home on the TV from many miles away it was clear that one team simply wanted to win Game 3 more than the other. That team, for three-quarters at least, was not the Atlanta Hawks.
If you frequent Peachtree Hoops often you know I am not usually the one to try and measure a player's effort. I think it is an iffy proposition to pretend to know how hard a person is trying or to what degree they care. I also think doing such can be disrespectful to the opponent. However, after watching the first quarter of Game 3 it was painfully obvious that one team was a bit more energized than the other.
In such instances where a team comes out flat, it is usually the head coach who gets most of that blame. It is his job to have the team ready to play however, veteran players must take it upon themselves to see that those instances don't happen. This is the one instance where perhaps not having a bonified leader or go-to guy hurts the Hawks. We have heard it countless times that Atlanta doesn't have a closer. You know the kind. One where you can stop all basketball action, throw him the ball so he can dribble out the clock before hoisting up a bad shot. Sometimes those shots bank in but most times they don't.
What the Hawks needed in Game 3 was a leader. Millsap has assumed that role many times this season, but he wasn't there for Atlanta on Saturday. Kyle Korver was swallowed up by Washington's defense. Al Horford? Missing in action. At one point, Jeff Teague looked so enthused about playing Saturday that he took a cheap shot at Bradley Beal on a breakaway in an effort to remove himself from the proceedings for the rest of evening.
This series isn't over by a long shot and Atlanta can at least take a measure of confidence that their struggling bench suddenly rose from the ashes and nearly delivered an improbable victory. Many times during the regular season, we have seen the Hawks bounce back from difficult situations, but here is what the Hawks must understand now.
They had a nice regular season, but each and every one of those 60 wins means very little at this point. They are playing an opponent that is suddenly without their best player and even if Wall is able to come back at some point he will be severely hampered by injury. Instead of seizing the moment it looked like Atlanta ran from it. Under those circumstances, it is absolutely inexcusable for a team as talented as Atlanta to come out with the level of intensity and effort that they played with in Game 3.
The doubters have said all season long that this team didn't have what it took to be successful in the playoffs. In Game 3 it looked like they were right. Now it is on the Hawks to prove them wrong.