Paul Pierce almost did it again.
The Wizards swingman converted a three-point attempt that was (correctly) waved off on replay, and while the Atlanta Hawks needed every bit of 48 minutes, they were able to hold on for dear life in a 94-91 victory to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Hawks put together a strong start on Friday evening, taking early control with an 8-0 run to grab a 12-5 lead. However, it was a sloppy game for both squads, as the Hawks shot just 5 for 17 to begin the night while Washington made only 3 of their first 16 attempts. On one hand, it was a positive that the Hawks trailed by only one point at the end of the first quarter, but by nature of allowing a 13-4 run in the closing moments of the period, no one was particularly happy with the 12-minute output.
For much of the second period, it was a back and forth affair, but Atlanta ended on a high note. The Hawks scored the final six points of the half, keyed by Paul Millsap, and the All-Star power forward scored 15 points before the halftime break. The starting five was hugely effective, with each player posting a +6 or better, but the bench was uneven (each player was -3 or worse), and it felt as if a 6-point cushion was appropriate for the visiting team at 45-39.
Coming out of the break, though, the Hawks turned it up a notch. DeMarre Carroll scored 8 points in the opening minutes (and 13 overall in the third quarter), helping to lead a 12-4 early run to take a 14-point lead. That advantage grew to as many as 15 points in the third, but on par with the rest of the series, Washington spurted to seven straight points of their own to narrow the margin and remove any cushion from the equation.
The margin did stabilize, however, and that led to the Hawks holding an 8-point advantage as the fourth quarter opened. Atlanta continued to play well offensively, scoring on the first five possessions to up the lead to 10 with nine minutes to go, and the feeling was generally positive, especially with Mike Budenholzer leaning heavily on his starting five.
Over the next handful of minutes, Budenholzer attempted to "steal" a few minutes with the reserves, but the Wizards put together a 17-6 overall run (with the last two baskets coming against the starters) to take a 1-point lead with 3:49 on the clock. Paul Millsap broke a drought of 5:20 (not a misprint) without a field when he rattled home a jumper with 1:47 to play, and after John Wall made only 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game, Jeff Teague found DeMarre Carroll for a slashing bucket to reclaim the lead with just 57 seconds remaining.
Nene, who was a stealth member of the Hawks throughout the night, provided an empty trip on the next possession, and in a mirror image of the previous basket, Teague found Carroll for what was a beautiful scoring play. That lay-up gave Atlanta a 93-89 lead, and after Al Horford helped to deny two straight shots at the rim, the advantage looked to be safe.
Still, this is Atlanta, and nothing comes easy. Budenholzer called timeout to set up an inbounds play, and while the Hawks got the ball in to Horford, he turned the ball over in an attempt to find Kyle Korver. That allowed the Wizards to close within two (on free throws by Garrett Temple), and after Horford made only 1 of 2 free throws on the other end, Washington had the ball with a 3-point deficit and 6.4 seconds remaining.
In true Atlanta fashion, Paul Pierce knocked down a three at the buzzer but, mercifully, the shot was overturned after replay showed that the ball was in his hands with 0.0 seconds remaining. The Atlanta Hawks had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in team history, and they reached the NBA's "final four" for the first time since 1970.
Every member of the starting five played 35 minutes or more, DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap were heroic with 20-10 efforts, and on a night when Kyle Korver made only 1 of his 8 field goal tries, the Hawks got a win. The Washington Wizards proved to be a more than worthy opponent, but this night belongs to Atlanta.
More to come, but the Hawks are alive and kicking. Cleveland awaits.