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Athleticism, intangibles help Hawks put down Heat

By Matt Winkeljohn, for NBA.com
Posted May 4 2009 7:07PM

ATLANTA -- Strange day in Atlanta Sunday. Goofy weather outside, streamers falling from the ceiling inside.

The weather was no surprise. Streamers? That doesn't happen here.

But here, in Philips Arena, were the Hawks winning a Playoff series for the first time since 1997 (Detroit) ... winning a Game 7 for the first time since moving from St. Louis in '68-'69 ... beating Miami 91-78 to win the first Game 7 ever in this city.

Joe Johnson made it feel right, the Hawks' All-Star guard finally playing like it while scoring 27 points. The guy drained 6-of-8 3-pointers. A couple were majestic.

"They got their star going, Joe was hitting 40-foot 3s," Miami's Dwyane Wade said, perhaps referencing Johnson's 12-point second quarter, a pleasant local surprise given that he averaged 15.5 points, six fewer than in the regular season as his shooting percentages sank.

To a distant viewer, this series was anything but picturesque alongside the other seven-game first round series. Celtics-Bulls = classic. This was, to steal a word from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra after Game 6, schizophrenic.

Every game in this series was decided by double digits, won by the team that led after the first quarter, and there was not a single lead change in this entire series in a second, third or fourth quarter. Not one.

Wade scored 31 points Sunday, but needed 25 shots to do it, and his lack of support doomed the Heat.

Drama? Not so much.

Interesting back story?

You can make a case that memories of seventh-game losses at Boston last season and in '88, and at Washington in '79 in the only other seven-game appearances in Atlanta Hawks history are smaller now in the mind's eye of Hawks fans largely because of ... the bigs.

The team with Josh Smith, Al Horford and the irrepressible Zaza Pachulia in the paint won.

The team with a hole in the middle lost.

Wade said the Heat lacked the athleticism to keep up with Hawks and Josh Smith's 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot were prime examples.

Although Wade did not say so, more critical was the virtual absence of center Jermaine O'Neal. That threw Miami's offense so utterly out of whack that the Heat were left almost prayerless.

O'Neal missed Game 6 with post-concussion symptoms after a collision with -- Guess who? Pachulia -- late in Game 5. Wade said between Games 5 and 6 that, "Zaza Pachulia is knocking people out."

The Hawks were so flat in Game 6, missing Horford (who returned from a sprained ankle Sunday), and with Smith making just 3-of-13 shots, that Miami didn't need O'Neal.

The Heat needed O'Neal in Game 7.

"I knew this was an important game. That's why I wanted to give it a go," he said. "I pleaded with everyone to give me a shot."

It did not go well. O'Neal picked up two fouls in 42 seconds and his only shot was an air ball in 42 first-quarter seconds. Then, he sat.

"This was the longest 48 minutes of my life," he said afterward.

So the visitors were without a legitimate post-scoring threat. Joel Anthony scored just once -- on a meaningless late dunk -- after starting in O'Neal's place. Forward Udonis Haslem scored most of his 14 points on baseline jumpers.

With little reason to sink guards into the paint, Atlanta was better positioned to harass shooters, and Miami struggled to make 4-of-14 shots in the tell-tale second quarter, missing all four 3-point tries.

"When O'Neal was playing well, we had to double-down," Atlanta's Maurice Evans said of matchup issues earlier in the series.

Not Sunday.

The Heat rarely fed Anthony the ball, and the Hawks often hardly bothered to defend him. That left five defenders for four shooters.

"Joel did a good job when he was in there, but he's not a scorer," Heat point guard Mario Chalmers said of Anthony, who averaged 2.2 points during the regular season. "[The Hawks] just had one person in the paint, and everybody else was with their man. I think that helped their defense."

Given the importance in this series of finishing the first quarter with a lead, the fate of the Heat may have turned in the final seconds of that period.

Wade had the ball with Mario West pestering him. With the game tied 18-18 and the shot clock winding down, Wade threw a cross-court pass to James Jones. Atlanta's Mike Bibby intercepted it right in front of the Miami bench, and Jones fouled him trying to prevent the steal.

Bibby made both free throws with 2.8 seconds left, and Atlanta won the first quarter 20-18.

Bad omen, and a theme: the Hawks scored 28 points off 19 Miami turnovers (Johnson had a game-high five steals), and the Heat scored 11 points off Atlanta's nine turnovers.

Then, Atlanta began out-working the Heat.

Pachulia hit the floor to grab a loose ball, called timeout before the Heat could tie him up, and after that timeout he stuck back a rebound for a 24-20 lead with 10:15 left in the second quarter.

Moments later, Pachulia went down again, and with a Miami player on either side of him, he grabbed another loose ball and flipped it to Horford in the paint. Horford swung it to Flip Murray in the left corner, and a 3-pointer pushed the lead to 27-22.

Pachulia, whose 18-rebound game helped the Hawks win back home court advantage with an 81-71 win in Game 4 in Miami, finished with modest totals of eight points and four rebounds.

But sometimes you have to look past a box score to find the glue.

"It doesn't always come down to numbers," Bibby said. "You need players who do stuff that doesn't come up on the stat sheet. The team that made the effort and energy plays in this series are the ones that won games."

It helps, too, to bomb away.

The Heat stole home-court from the Hawks by winning Game 2 in Atlanta by making 15-of-26 3-pointers. They had no such luck Sunday, making 4-of-19.

After Wade missed a trey, Johnson -- who had missed his first five shots -- hit a trey for a 30-22 edge.

Moments later, while bringing the ball up as Wade backed up before him, he let fly from 32 feet, even though the shot clock showed eight seconds.

As the ball stripped cords for a 33-22 lead with 8:00 to go in the second quarter, the crowd was in a frenzy.

And the Hawks were clear of the Heat for good.

"I was just a little bit more aggressive tonight," said Johnson, ignoring the game's 1 p.m. start time. "I don't think I've shot a 3 that deep in quite some time. I just said, 'Forget it,' and I just launched it."

The Heat cut the lead to eight points a couple minutes later, but Atlanta went on a 10-2 run from there and the Heat were at least 10 points -- and as many as 29 -- behind for the rest of the afternoon.

"I think back to the Celtics series last year, and playing them tough to seven games," said Atlanta coach Mike Woodson. "They taught us how to play playoff basketball. Unfortunately, we had to finish Game 7 in the Garden and it left a bad taste in our mouths.

"We set goals at the beginning of the year, and ... theirs came true in the sense that we were able to host a first-round Playoff series at home in front of these great fans."

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