By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Apr 17 2010 10:51PM
ATLANTA -- Hawks coach Mike Woodson kept mashing the rewind button on the remote control in his office at Philips Arena.
"How in the world did we win this game?" he said as we sat there watching the same sequence of plays from the Hawks' February 28 home win over the Bucks, an overtime affair that still had Woodson perplexed a month and a half later, over and over again.
"I'm serious," he said. "How in the world did we win this game?"
It's the same question people ask about the Hawks all the time, win or lose, as they try and understand how a team can look so good one minute and struggle mightily the next.
Woodson was watching that tape two hours before the opening tip of the Hawks' enigmatic 102-92 victory in Game 1 of his team's Eastern Conference first-round series against the Bucks, yet another chapter in the curious case of one of the NBA's most intriguing teams.
The Hawks are good enough to roast the Bucks in one half, they led by as many as 24 points in the third quarter, and still frighten an entire city the next by allowing a wounded Bucks team to come charging back behind the play of rookie point guard Brandon Jennings.
Sure, they won their playoff home opener for the second straight year. And they did so in rousing fashion, finishing off the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks by double digits. But you still don't know if you can trust this team to take care of it s business without losing control for long stretches.
They certainly didn't inspire any confidence that a performance like this would suffice against an elite foe like Cleveland or Orlando, or even a healthy Bucks team.
"We did win the game," Hawks forward Josh Smith said and then smiled. "Don't forget about that. You make it sound like we lost or something. That's a playoff team over there. They're not going to lay down for us. Nobody is going to do that this time of year. We hit first, they fought back and we finished the business. That's how it works."
Woodson didn't agree with one reporters' post-game assessment that the Hawks routinely treat folks to these sort of uneven performances only to promise minutes later that his team would "be better" in Game 2.
"We've played solidly all year," Woodson said. "We've had some close games. And when you get into playoff basketball you can build a big lead but teams are going to make runs and you're going to see that in the playoffs in the rest of the way out. Milwaukee made a heck of a run in the third quarter, and we countered the run, and were able to keep the cushion that we needed to secure the win."
For a team that aspires to bigger and better things, the Hawks talk openly about making statements and proving that they belong among the league's elite, keeping cushions and doing just enough to secure wins might not be enough.
Hawks sixth man and playoff rookie Jamal Crawford admitted as much, noting that the jump intensity level from the regular season to playoffs was as advertised.
"It's like going from the preseason to the regular season," said Crawford, who finished with 17 points in his postseason debut. "But it's even more magnified here."
Indeed. Everything is magnified in the playoffs, strengths and weaknesses, and other subtle flaws that might have gotten overlooked during the 82-game grind of the regular season.
The Hawks played to perception, piling up 62 points by halftime and then going flat in the second half. They had nine turnovers after the break and never could get Smith and Al Horford going inside against the Bucks' small-ball lineup they dominated in the first half.
Some of that had to do with the Bucks playing much better in the second half, including the defensive adjustments made during the break.
"The first half we were a little shell shocked," said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "I think in the second half we competed harder. We settled down a little bit. In the second half we played more like ourselves."
The Hawks did the same.
Instead of running the Bucks out of the building, they found a way to make what looked to be a rout early on a nail-biter for the announced sellout, towel-waving crowd of 18,729.
They won't win over any of their skeptics with second half showings like the one they had against the Bucks. Jennings put on a show, keeping his team in the game by scoring 12 of his-game-high 34 points in the third quarter.
John Salmons matched that and the Bucks trimmed that 24-point deficit to seven, 77-70, before a Mike Bibby 3-pointer woke the Hawks up with 30 seconds to play in the quarter.
"They won 15 out of 17 games in February and March, so they're going to make runs, and they're going to compete," Crawford said.
Instead of resting his starters for Game 2, Woodson was forced to keep his rotation tight to hold the Bucks off in the fourth.
It made for a strange post-game celebration. As pleased as the Hawks were to handle their business, they seemed grounded in the fact that this series won't be nearly as easy as it might have appeared to be at halftime.
"We wanted to jump on them quick," Bibby said, "but we have a tough series cut out for us. They're going to keep fighting and keep fighting; they were down 24 points tonight and they made it a game. They were scoring and we weren't scoring and they got back in the game. But I think we're going to be okay."
Thinking and knowing are two different things.
It's also the difference between the truly elite teams and those teams that aspire to be elite.
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