ATLANTA — So, this is what a playoff victory in March looks like.
Despite being outnumbered (regulars-wise), outclassed (size-wise) and stuck in the middle of a Kobe buzzsaw (Bryant had 28 second-half points), the Atlanta Hawks pulled out an emotional 96-92 win over the Lakers on Wednesday, before a spirited sellout crowd of 19,163 at Philips Arena.
In NBA circles, there are no true upsets. But playing without Josh Smith (knee), Jeff Teague (ankle), DeShawn Stevenson and Zaza Pachulia, the Hawks were decided underdogs against the white-hot Lakers (9-2 prior to the battle), relying on unsung performers like John Jenkins (12 points), Ivan Johnson (12 points) and Johan Petro — yes, that Johan Petro — to bring home the victory.
Petro, who had a grand total of 55 points this season heading into Wednesday, notched 10 points, 11 rebounds and somehow helped limit Dwight Howard to only 10 points (with 16 rebounds).
Of course, the whole bench uprising would have fallen flat if Atlanta had not executed its game plan of attacking off missed L.A. shots and running nearly every half-court set through big man Al Horford, who collected 14 points, 14 boards and a hard-fought plus-9 for the night.
From a distance, this was some random game in March, with both clubs playing the previous evening. But it was also a red-letter event for the Hawks, so much that Horford addressed his teammates before tipoff.
“We knew we were shorthanded,” said Horford afterward. “I told our guys beforehand, ‘It’s all about the team, it’s all about staying together.’ And we did it. We did it. We got the job done.”
During Wednesday’s shootaround, head coach Larry Drew incurred a few reminders of the Hawks’ banged-up state, noting the maladies to Smith, Pachulia and Teague. What’s more, even a “healthy” asset like Horford was sporting a giant bag of ice on his hand.
Feeling the pinch of being understaffed, Drew instructed his players “to go out, and No. 1, have fun. I wanted to see the joy (of playing) on their faces again. We had a very disappointing (loss) against Miami (Tuesday). When you play like that and then you have to travel (back home) to play the Lakers, sometimes you can lose the joy of playing.”
Happy-go-lucky theme aside, the game had a weird rhythm from the outset. The sight of a rail-thin Petro defending the muscle-bound Howard in the paint should have motivated the Lakers to feed their center whenever possible — especially since Bryant (31 points) went scoreless in the first quarter and had only three at the break.
Instead, Los Angeles connected on eight of 23 perimeter-oriented shots early on and trailed 26-19 after the first quarter. For the entire night, Howard would attempt just nine shots from the field (with five conversions).
The second quarter ran eerily similar to its predecessor. Yes, the Lakers shot a little better in the quarter (9 of 19), but the majority of possessions were stalling out along the outside, with Bryant and Howard seldom being featured.
It was a quiet half for Kobe, obviously too quiet. Just minutes after a Horford jumper rolled the Hawks’ lead to a game-high 14, Bryant went off for 20 points in the third quarter, singlehandedly bringing his team back into the fold.
Bryant managed eight points in the final stanza. But the real drama came in the last minute, when Kobe, trailing 94-92, dashed to the right baseline and pulled up for a potential game-tying jumper that missed wide. On the landing, Bryant collided legs/feet with Hawks forward Dahntay Jones, before collapsing to the floor as Kyle Korver (15 points) secured the game-clinching rebound.
During the stoppage of play, Bryant got up and campaigned to return to the floor, even though no time had gone off the clock. After the game, with Bryant noticeably limping, it was announced that Kobe had suffered a “severely sprained ankle” and would be out indefinitely.
(Kobe used words like “dangerous” and “revenge” when discussing his late-game entanglement with Jones, laying the groundwork for a heated encounter in the future.)
As for the Hawks, Devin Harris (17 points, seven assists) seized every opportunity to push the break against the older, slower Lakers. With Atlanta trailing by two early in the fourth quarter, the point guard launched the following four-minute flurry:
A fast-break assist leading to a Jenkins 3-pointer. A step-back jumper from the top of the key. A pull-up jumper that touched every part of the rim before falling. And one last driving layup, through traffic, upping the Hawks’ lead to 88-83. (A few minutes later, he fired a bullet pass to a cherry-picking Korver for a crucial layup.)
With the victory, the Hawks (35-29) moved into a sixth-place tie with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings. If form holds, Atlanta would be on the opposite sub-bracket of Miami, winners of 20 straight and easily the class of the East.
But the wrangling for seeds remains in perpetual motion, as No. 5 Chicago (35-28) only leads Boston and Atlanta by a half-game.
On a similar plane, the Lakers (34-32) are fighting for their playoff lives, holding a half-game edge over the Jazz in the West. But should Bryant miss a substantial amount of time down the stretch, Utah would likely hold the advantage (and tiebreaker) in that one-on-one battle.
Not that anyone expects Kobe to be shelved for long. He’s relentless. He also knows how to sell the drama in Hollywood.