With news that John Wall would miss Game 3 as a result of injury, there was a sense of optimism with regard to the Atlanta Hawks and their chances against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. That optimism proved to be unwarranted. The Hawks flailed throughout much the day with a performance unbecoming of a number one seed, and despite a spectacular comeback from the bench in the final moments, the Wizards escaped with a 103-101 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
Saturday's game began with an ominous sign, as Paul Millsap was scratched from the starting lineup with flu-like symptoms. Unfortunately, the rest of the roster didn't have that excuse for what was a horrific first half showing.
The Wizards flew out of the gate with an 11-2 run after an opening dunk from DeMarre Carroll, and Atlanta missed eight consecutive shots in the process. That drought was unquestionably tied to woeful shot selection, including several "settle" attempts from long distance, and the Wizards were the faster, more active squad. Later in the quarter, Washington put together another 9-0 run to claim a 12-point lead, and the Hawks trailed by 10 points after 12 minutes.
Sadly, the first quarter wasn't the only rough period on this day, as the second was arguably more frustrating. The Wizards scored nine straight points in the middle portion of the period, and that stretch included a flagrant foul committed by Jeff Teague against Bradley Beal at the 3:50 mark. Teague avoided ejection (by the skin of his teeth), but the frustration level was clear.
The Hawks did climb back within 13 points at the half, but it was a maddening period of 24 minutes. Atlanta made only 39% of their field goal attempts while committing nine turnovers, and Washington took advantage to the tune of 51% shooting (6 of 15 from three) and only five turnovers. The 13-point deficit felt like a gift given the hapless and lifeless effort from the visiting team, and that was basically the only positive takeaway.
While there was a small blip of success early in the second half, the 24 minutes following halftime were equally painful. The Hawks closed to within nine points at 66-57 within the first five minutes of the third quarter, but in a flash, that semi-positive feeling evaporated. Washington immediately answered with a 12-4 spurt to grab a 17-point lead with 3:44 remaining the quarter, and that advantage stretched to 19 by the end of the period.
Though much of Saturday afternoon/evening was a factory of sadness, the Hawks would actually make a respectable push in the fourth quarter. The Wizards led by as many as 21 points, but Atlanta's bench (featuring Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott, John Jenkins and Mike Muscala) sprinted to a 17-0 run (not a misprint) to close within three points at the 3:12 mark, and there was legitimate worry in the building for Wizards fans.
In fact, the Hawks held possession in a 3-point game with fewer than 40 seconds remaining. Kyle Korver came up short on a reasonable look from long distance, but Dennis Schröder got to the line after an important offensive rebound and converted both free throws to bring Atlanta within one with 23.8 seconds on the clock. After a stop on the other end, a scramble play netted a game-tying three by Mike Muscala (!!!!) with 14 seconds left, but that simply set the stage for Paul Pierce. Pierce knocked down a ridiculous, contested three off the glass as the buzzer sounded, and the Wizards escaped.
The result was correct.
The Atlanta Hawks, for more than three quarters, were a factory of sadness, and not even a heroic effort from the bench could save them on this night. The final numbers (44% FG, 30% 3-PT) weren't fully disastrous, but the team submitted a subpar effort with little in the way of energy and life against an undermanned opponent. The final shot was a gut-punch, but the damage was done well before that, and the better team won on this particular evening.
For the first time this season, it feels as if the Atlanta Hawks are legitimately on the ropes. Game 4 awaits.