Posted May 8 2010 9:38PM
ATLANTA -- The sounds of discontent were heard early, when the home team fell behind by double digits in the first quarter. Then it escalated by halftime, Hawks now down 19 points, fans getting restless and their pitch getting more sinister. Finally, the booing ceased with 6 minutes left, largely because Philips Arena was half empty.
And what about those angry fans, anyway?
"It doesn't bother me and I hope it doesn't bother anyone on this team," a defiant Joe Johnson said. "It's about the guys in this locker room. We couldn't care less if they showed up or not."
Well, the difference was the crowd actually did show up for Game 3. The Hawks? Save for three quarters in Game 2, they haven't appeared this series. And now, after a 53-win regular season, after lots of chest-puffing about belonging among the elite teams in the NBA, after putting two players in the All-Star Game, they're on the verge of being put to sweep. And maybe, you know, Johnson should be careful. Maybe the fans won't show up for Game 4 and witness the inevitable. Even they know where this series is going.
It's been a hard and violent fall for Johnson and Atlanta the last few weeks, squeezing out a 7-game series against the Bucks, then enduring an ongoing Dwightmare in the Eastern Conference semifinals. And when they finally reach bottom with a splat, the pieces of their once-promising season could scatter and blow away.
Meaning, coach Mike Woodson, on the final year of his contract, will not be invited back. Same for Johnson, a free agent this summer, especially after insulting the fans as well as his team with poor play in this post-season. Losing by 43 in Game 1 was more graceful than refusing to compete at home in Game 3, bowing out by 30. Swiftly and suddenly, the Hawks went from soaring to sulking, from being admired to being disgraced.
"Unacceptable," said Woodson, dead coach walking.
Now understand, the Hawks are probably playing the eventual NBA champs. The only undefeated team in the playoffs at 7-0, the Magic could become only the third team in history to sweep through their first two rounds. Dwight Howard continues to be un-checkable, punishing the Hawks at both ends while avoiding silly fouls and poor free throw shooting, his personal Kryptonite. Also, Orlando is playing textbook defense, holding the Hawks to 75 points in Game 3, while giving Atlanta a lesson in ball movement and decision-making.
But the demise of the Hawks actually began against the undermanned Bucks. Being taken to the limit by a team missing its best player wasn't a good reflection on Woodson. Whether true or not, it gave the appearance the Bucks were better coached and prepared. And because they were forced to play a 7th game, then start the Eastern Conference semifinals two days later, the Hawks were vulnerable physically and mentally. They weren't ready, and it showed in Game 1.
At least there was an excuse, small as it was, for that effort.
"We didn't see this one coming," said Woodson, about Game 3. "It's very disappointing. I figured we'd come here and make a series out of it. We didn't compete."
Then there's Johnson. Could it be the Hawks might be thrilled he refused their pre-season offer of 4 years and $60 million? Johnson hasn't distinguished himself as a premier player in the post-season. He could be costing himself money; surely the Knicks and Nets and Bulls and everyone else shopping for talent this summer can see what we're seeing. He's shooting 12-for-42 this series. During a stretch of 4 straight quarters over two games, he scored 2 baskets against Orlando. He missed 12 of 15 shots in Game 3 and finished with 8 points, struggling mightily, then unwisely dismissed the dissatisfaction of the paying customers who only wanted to see some effort.
And this is Atlanta, home of largely meek fans. Imagine Johnson playing in New York and dealing with that atmosphere.
He did own up to this: "The guys look at me for guidance. For me playing like that, it's almost impossible for us to win. You never hear me coming up with any excuses."
The brunt will land on the shoulders of Woodson, since he doesn't have a contract, since the organization has firmly sat on the fence regarding his status for the last 2 years. He has coached the Hawks for 6 years, longest same-team reign of anyone in the Eastern Conference, and his days, like his team, appear numbered.
"I've got to take responsibility," Woodson said.
In a weird coincidence, Stan Van Gundy began his post-game press conference relaying a scene that happened moments before. A young Hawks fan passed by in the hallway and told the Orlando coach, in jest: "If they had come back from 31 down, you would've had to retire."
Makes you wonder what the kid would've said to Woodson.
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