ATLANTA — With their season on the verge of a potential meltdown, the Atlanta Hawks rallied for a gutsy 105-97 win on Wednesday over the Boston Celtics that pushed the Hawks one step closer to the postseason.
As they lurch toward the end of the regular season next week, the Hawks (34-43) have won four out of six. After losing on Tuesday at home to Detroit, a team 20 games under .500, the Hawks were staring another loss in the face to a team below them in the standings, possibly endangering their playoff prospects in the process.
With the win, their magic number to eliminate the New York Knicks is now two, giving the clinching an air of inevitability. Any combination of wins by the Hawks or losses by the Knicks equaling two will secure a playoff spot for Atlanta, which would be the franchise’s seventh straight trip to the postseason.
The Hawks trailed 89-80 with 5:44 left in regulation before they mounted a 19-3 run. Just prior to that, the Hawks were whistled for a five-second violation on an inbounds play, a call that took an ominous air at the time.
"There was the moment when we turned the ball over, the five-second violation, we had a great play drawn up, we couldn’t get the ball in and it was a bad turnover," said Hawks guard Kyle Korver, one of six players in double figures with 17 points. "It was a moment where we were like, ‘OK, we either got to pull this together right now or this isn’t going to be good.’ We can’t lose back-to-back. If we had lost both of these games that would have been really disheartening."
While the postseason might seem inevitable now, for a while on Wednesday the outcome had more of a frightful air about it — until point guard Jeff Teague, who posted team highs of 19 points and eight assists, and the Hawks defense stepped to the fore.
Teague, who was having a bit of a sleepy game, proved the catalyst during a 19-3 run over a late four-and-a-half-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. Teague made a 3-pointer to pull the Hawks within 89-85 after Elton Brand started the run with a dunk off a feed from DeMarre Carroll.
Brand then came up with a steal and Teague scored on a breakaway dunk. Teague followed that up with a steal of his own to set up Korver for a 3-pointer that put the Hawks up 90-89.
"We started trapping a little bit more, being a little more aggressive on the ball and I think that played into our favor," said Teague.
The Celtics answered with a 3-pointer of their own but then Korver added his second straight triple and the Hawks never looked back.
"That’s just his energy," said Brand of Teague, "and when he plays like that, we’re hard to beat. We get up for certain games like the Pacer game" — a big Hawks’ win on Sunday in Indianapolis — "we show we can beat any team but by the same token we can lose to any team. So we need to come out with that energy and fight every night."
It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type of effort for the Hawks, who were brilliant at the beginning and the end — totaling 32 and 35 points, respectively, in the first and last quarters — end and mediocre at best in the middle with just 38 total.
Pero Antic, who was expected to start, was declared out with soreness in the same right ankle that kept him out for so long with a stress fracture. That meant Brand, the 14-year veteran, had to start and ended up playing 33 minutes. He finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
In the first half the Hawks shot 62.2 percent (23 of 37) and led by five at the break. One night after allowing Detroit to get out to a 35-point first quarter in what ended up being a 102-95 loss, the Hawks were the ones who started fast on Wednesday.
But it almost slipped away and the Hawks had to battle back. Now, they could clinch as soon as Friday if the Knicks lose in Toronto and the Hawks beat Brooklyn on the road the same day.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer praised the team’s resilience, especially coming off the performance against Detroit.
"We have a competitive group and they want to find a way to win," said Budenholzer. "I think it was more just searching for how are we going to find that spark. I think their determination — there’s always plays that frustrate all of us throughout a game but I thought our focus and kind of staying together was actually very good tonight."â