The concept of a moral victory is lost in the world of professional sports and for good reason.
NBA teams, and professional teams in general, are judged purely on the merits of their on-court performance, and without the backdrop of "teaching" that scholastic sports provides, everyone is judged on a relatively equal playing field. On Friday night, the Atlanta Hawks still managed to leave Philips Arena with something of a moral victory.
The Hawks put together one of their more disastrous halves in recent memory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, falling behind by 21 points late in the second quarter before putting together a small spurt to climb within a "workable" margin of 14 points at the break. There were flashes of positive performance prior to halftime, including an 11-2 run early in the first quarter and a 7-point spurt at the close of the second, but in general, Atlanta's performance was miserable and that was highlighted by 30% shooting and 55 points allowed on the defensive end.
Of course, this showing conjured a lot of negativity based on what took place the last time these same Cavs invaded Atlanta. Cleveland breezed through Philips Arena in grabbing two wins on their way to the Eastern Conference crown in May, and it was about as frustrating as the deepest run in Atlanta franchise history could be.
Fast forward to Friday night, and there was a swirl of frustration taking place about the Hawks after 24 minutes of ugliness. Then, the lights came on.
"We feel good about our team. We feel good about the basketball that we're playing, and we have a lot of pride. I don't know what we were down at halftime, 14 I think. It felt like we were down 30. They really just outplayed us, and so Coach got on a few of us at halftime and guys responded."
Those are the words of Kyle Korver following Friday night's game, and whatever Budenholzer spouted during the halftime break definitely "worked" in the grandest way that it can in the NBA.
The Hawks opened the half with a 13-4 run that included two threes from Korver himself, and that spurt stretched to 21-6 as Atlanta, against all odds, reclaimed the lead on a Paul Mlllsap three-pointer with 5:05 left in the third quarter. In just under seven minutes, Atlanta erased the hideous that was the first 24 minutes of the game and, in accordance, leveled the playing field with a team that has had its number in the recent past.
On this night, the magical ending was not to be, as the Hawks fell short by a two-point margin in overtime, but the second half showing was a reminder of the resilience needed to put together a legitimate playoff push. Mike Budenholzer mentioned that the second half showing was "the kind of physicality, toughness and competitiveness" that the Hawks must display at all times, and for the fan base, the energy level was highly encouraging in a spot where lesser teams would have simply packed things in for the night.
Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and the aforementioned Korver can and should be credited with that bump in production, as the trio exploded after the halftime break. Millsap scored 17 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 24 minutes including overtime, while Teague added 21 points and 5 assists and Korver knocked down four three-pointers to go along with a +27 (!) net rating in 25 minutes of action. In the same breath, Atlanta's collective defensive intensity rose to the occasion, holding Cleveland to just 34% shooting post-halftime, and despite coming up short on the scoreboard, that was a combination that encouraged everyone from head coach to the entire roster.
Make no mistake, the Atlanta Hawks could have done more to alleviate playoff worries from themselves and the fan base with a real, live victory in this spot. Teague picked an inopportune time to fall back into a trap of poor clock management, Millsap failed to get a couple of tough buckets to fall in the latter stages and, well, LeBron James made a few plays to keep Cleveland in front. Those shortcomings should not and cannot be ignored in the grand scheme, but even in a league that doesn't particularly reward close-fought losses, this was one of the encouraging variety.
Until Budenholzer and his team can exercise the demons of May 2015 with some playoff success and, potentially, a rematch with Cleveland "when it matters", the Hawks will be left with the simplest of moral victories. However, there was a 29-minute period of impressive basketball on Friday night, and for the optimists among us, that was quite enjoyable and encouraging.