In an ugly, slugfest of a playoff game it came down to a single possession for the Atlanta Hawks and Al Horford delivered in a big way. Horford's putback with one second remaining gave the Hawks an 82-81 win in Game 5 over the Washington Wizards and a 3-2 lead in the series heading to Game 6. The play came moments after Paul Pierce hit what looked like yet another game winner for Washington.
"The last play was an opportunity to get to the paint, get to the basket, see if we could score," said head coach Mike Budenholzer following the game. "Defenses are aggressive. They're going to come attack. We wanted our bigs to go to the offensive boards and see if they could finish if we weren't able to make the initial shot. Al obviously did that in a big time way. Paul went hard and Nene had to take care of Paul on a box out. That freed up Al to get the board. It was a lucky bounce. It was a heck of a play by Al."
As Budenholzer expected, John Wall jumped out aggressively against Dennis Schröder which opened up a driving lane to the basket. Washington's help defense prevented Schröder from converting on the drive but he was able to get the ball up on the glass and Horford did the rest.
"I wasn't supposed to be involved in the play at all," said Horford of the final possession. "I was supposed to set a screen for Kyle, which I did. We put our trust in Dennis. He had a great drive. Then when I saw the ball go up, I just ran in there. It was just a hustle play. Just making a winning play. I just got the ball and my first instinct was just to put it in the basket.
Horford's heroics brought the Hawks one step closer to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since coming to Atlanta.
"It means a lot, but more importantly we won," Horford said. We all get to celebrate, and it's about our team. I was just in position and I just made a play. I'm just excited we're in a position of 3-2 now, took care of home. As a team, we have a chance to go up to DC and wrap the series up."
The Hawks had to take the unconventional route to get to a 3-2 lead. Many wondered if they were capable of winning a defensive slugfest in the playoffs. There was nothing pretty about Game 5 for either team, but Atlanta's defense and the play of their bench gave them the chance to pull out a victory.
Atlanta held the Wizards to just 38 percent shooting including 4-of-17 from three-point range. Atlanta ended the game with a 50-46 rebounding edge including a 10-7 advantage in second-chance points. Of course none were bigger than the final second-chance bucket of the evening.
"The defense for both teams tonight was very good," Budenholzer said. "Al Horford made a play at the end of the game. It was a winning play. We talk about those. He went and got it, and found a way to put it back in. There were a lot of winning plays throughout the game -- blocked shots, 50-50 balls in the second half, lots of guys competing on both sides. We feel, if we compete like that, that's what's going to give us our best chance."
"We're just out there being solid, boxing out. DeMarre's getting rebounds," Horford said. "Everybody's participating. It's all about the team here. We're doing whatever it takes to win the game. We just happened to be in a position to get a lot of those rebounds."
Atlanta's bench has been a maligned group for a lot of the postseason, but they delivered in some key spots for Atlanta in Game 5. Mike Muscala played 15 big minutes off the bench finishing with eight points and three rebounds. Kent Bazemore didn't score but did a bit of everything finishing with five rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.
Dennis Schröder was atrocious during the first half of Game 5 but was on the court down the stretch in place of starter Jeff Teague when the Hawks made their final run.
"We've been trying to keep Jeff fresh, where he doesn't get fatigued playing long stretches," Budenholzer said. So we were giving him a minute or two there, around the five-minute mark. We had him at the table to go back in, but we made several plays. Dennis made a couple of them himself and Jeff took over coaching and said 'leave him in.' That's a credit to Jeff. I thought Jeff played well all night. It's a great teammate to not only encourage Dennis, but also encourage me to just go ahead and let him finish, or at least play the next little bit. It just felt right. Jeff being the teammate and the unselfish guy that he is, it worked out tonight."
All six of Schröder's points came in the second half as did four of his seven assists. He turned the ball over just once after halftime which was big given that turnovers just about ended any chance Atlanta had in Game 5.
The Hawks turned the ball over 25 times Wednesday night which led to 25 points for the Wizards. Not only did the miscues gum up Atlanta's offense, but they also led to fast break opportunities for Washington.
Still with the game on the line, the Hawks found a way to get the job done and to capture a critical win. The series is not over by a long shot, but Atlanta now has a pair of chances to close things out. The series has been like a heavyweight boxing match where the fighters just back and forth at each other. Things haven't quite gone according to plan for the Hawks whose wide open offense has been stuck in the mud for much of the postseason. However, to their credit, they continue to find a way and moved one step closer again on Wednesday night.