Posted Apr 29 2010 1:54AM
ATLANTA -- The spotlight shines brightest on a team's strengths and weaknesses in the NBA playoffs.
The teams equipped for the journey can handle the glare, manage the rigors that come with it and determine their own fate.
The Atlanta Hawks, despite a 53-win season, home court advantage and a top-3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff hierarchy, proved that they are not one of those teams. A staggering collapse, one of epic proportions by most any standard, proved that perhaps they do not belong.
Stripped of their false sense of bravado after two straight road losses to the Milwaukee Bucks in Games 3 and 4, the Hawks were fried by the spotlight in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. They squandered a 13-point lead and lost 91-87 before a sellout Philips Arena crowd Wednesday night, a defeat that rocked a team, a franchise, its fans and an entire city to its core.
"This is like waking up from a bad dream," Hawks guard Jamal Crawford said as he lingered in an empty locker room, his teammates long gone, still struggling to make sense of what transpired. "I can't believe that just happened. It really was like a bad dream."
This was no dream.
Crawford's nightmare evening included a 4-for-18 shooting effort on the same night he was presented with his Sixth Man Award.
"I was terrible," he said. "I mean just terrible."
He was far from alone. Other than Marvin Williams and Al Horford, who both finished with career playoff scoring highs, the Hawks didn't get a performance to match the magnitude of the moment from any of their big names.
This is a team with two All-Stars, another player that should have been an All-Star in Josh Smith, the league's best sixth man playing against a Bucks team that is without its most valuable player, injured center Andrew Bogut.
Yet it was the Bucks that went to the free-throw line 18 times in the fourth quarter to the Hawks' none. It was the Bucks that showed the greatest resolve at the most critical moments, they outscored the Hawks 30-18 in the fourth quarter.
Once again the Hawks had no answer for Bucks rookie point guard Brandon Jennings (25 points) or John Salmons (19 points, six rebounds and five assists), who took turns exploiting mismatches on offense that Hawks coach Mike Woodson refused to adjust to, even after being burned by the same two players repeatedly in the two games prior to Wednesday night in the same manner.
"They went up 13 on us and I'm sure most people thought the game was over," Jennings said. "But everybody makes their runs. And we just kept fighting back. We just kept attacking all game."
Game 5 in a 2-2 series on your home floor is supposed to provide shelter for the home team. For the Hawks, there was only pressure, unbearable pressure for this fragile team that has now lost three straight games and now faces the prospect of elimination in Game 6 Friday night in Milwaukee.
"We're going to win," Horford said. "No question about it. That's the bottom line. We have to bring it back to Atlanta [for Game 7 Sunday]."
Were Horford the Hawks' center of attention and not just their center, his words would carry more weight.
But captain and All-Star Joe Johnson is the Hawks' catalyst, and his ominous words in the aftermath of this debacle spoke volumes about the shaky state of affairs for a team that entered the postseason with aspirations of battling Orlando for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
"We'll just have to go up to Milwaukee and see what we can come up with," Johnson said.
Does that sound like a plan to you? Didn't think so.
Even when the Hawks were ahead and the crowd was rocking, they led by nine points with four minutes to play, four minutes from a commanding 3-2 lead in the series, it didn't seem like enough.
The Bucks wouldn't go away.
The Hawks couldn't put them away.
And everybody in the building knew it.
When Johnson picked up his fifth and sixth fouls during a 30-second stretch with 2:15 remaining, the Hawks' lead was already down to just a point. The Bucks scored five straight points to snatch control of the game and this series while the Hawks looked out of sorts without Johnson on the floor to carry them, as their flawed system mandates.
"Our composure ... coming down the stretch," Woodson said after his team's 14-game home win streak was snapped, "we just let it get away."
The game for sure.
Perhaps even the series.
And potentially so much more.
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