ATLANTA — Here are three things we learned from the Hawks’ 81-73 loss to the Pacers in Game 6, clinching Atlanta’s first-round exit from the NBA playoffs:
1. The Hawks picked the wrong night to post their lowest home tally of the season
Chalk it up topoor shootingor amped-up playoff intensity. No matter how you slice it, the Hawks simply didn’t respond to the challenge of defending their home court in Game 6 with a focused effort — from beginning to end.
On a night when Indiana gave Atlanta every chance to get the victory and force a Game 7, too.
The Hawks shot 34 percent from the field, notched only nine points in the second quarter, lost the rebounding battle by 14 (45-31) and dug a gaping hole that flirted with 20 points throughout the third quarter. And yet, Atlanta still had a chance to pull within a bucket in the final minutes.
It was quite the sight. Almost surreal.
But during that definitive period, with the Philips Arena crowd whipped into a renewed frenzy, the Hawks often settled for contested, long-range (and sometimes off-balance) shots late in the game. As a result, Atlanta didn’t muster a single point in the final four minutes and surrendered another season in Atlanta without an NBA title, amid little drama at the buzzer.
“The story of this game was our inability to make a shot,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “As bad as it was in the first half (9 of 38 shooting), we were still within striking distance. Coming in at halftime down by eight, and we just couldn’t make a shot.”
On Feb. 2 at Philips, the Hawks scored only 76 points in a desultory loss to the Bulls. By most accounts, it was the low point to a productive home campaign — especially after finishing January on a 4-1 note.
But Friday’s season-ending defeat was harder to watch … and for Hawks fans, probably harder to take.
How can a team that crushed Indiana by margins of 23 and 11 in Games 3 and 4 come out so flat in a crucial Game 6, especially with Atlanta’s solid home playoff record from the last five seasons (15-10)? And how could the Hawks, winners of 13 straight against the Pacers at home, produce five double-digit scorers (Devin Harris, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver) … and still look so out of sync?
Let the record show: Horford’s posterized dunk over Roy Hibbert — which cut the deficit to 76-73 — stood as the Hawks’ signature play of the night … and final bucket of the season.
2. It may take some time to erase the stench of Atlanta’s grim second quarter
There are only so many ways to describe a 12-minute period that results in 1 of 15 shooting. Abysmal. Absurd. Wretched.
In this case, every word applies.
But here’s the weird part: Despite scoring nine points and shooting 7 percent from the field, the Hawks only trailed the Pacers by eight at the break. And the margin would have been just six, if Indiana forward David West (21 points, eight boards) hadn’t buried a stepback 16-footer with 0.1 left on the clock, boosting his team’s lead to 37-29.
The second quarter began, innocently enough, with a short jumper from Korver. At the time, no one could have known Atlanta would miss its next 13 shots from the field before halftime … or that Korver (12 points on 3 of 11 shooting) would go the entire night without a made three-pointer on his resume.
“We just couldn’t get it going offensively,” said Smith of the Hawks’ second-quarter blues.
The forgettable stanza, however, was more than a bevy of missed shots. It also included fruitless moments like:
**Smith tossing a backwards pass on a secondary break into the stands.
**Harris air-balling an open jumper from 17 feet.
**Center Johan Petro air-mailing a running jumper off a pick-and-roll play … and then watching Pacers star Paul George bury an easy 17-footer just seconds later.
**Indiana guard George Hill (21 points, seven boards) driving through a sea of Atlanta defenders for an uncontested layup.
**Smith dropping a picture-perfect pass from Horford underneath the basket, eliciting a smattering of boos from the Philips faithful — a crowd that’s blissfully aware of Smith’s impending free agency.
3. The Hawks have a golden opportunity to transform their roster this summer
Enterprising Web sites like HoopsHype.com and Basketball-Reference.com show some minor discrepancies, but essentially, the Hawks are committed to seven players (Horford, Louis Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, John Jenkins, Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack, Jeremy Tyler) and roughly $22.4 million in salaries next season … leaving them with approximately $47.9 million in available cap space.
(Teague, the Hawks’ first-round pick from 2009 and likely point guard of the future, will be a restricted free agent this summer.)
In other words, Atlanta theoretically has the funds to rebuild from scratch over one hellacious summer — not unlike Miami’s miracle reclamation from three years ago, signing superstars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to near-identical, long-term contracts.
But let’s be real here: Unless the Hawks can execute some grand plan of landing Dwight Howard (unrestricted free agent), Chris Paul (unrestricted free agent) and then trading for another star player, thanks to a perfectly timed salary dump, the rebuilding process will likely be a steady chore for general manager Danny Ferry and his executive staff.
Either way, with their playoff elimination, the Hawks will undoubtedly bear a different look next year, whether that involves the exodus of Smith, Harris or injured center Zaza Pachulia (Achilles) … or coach Drew, who has won 56 percent of his games with Atlanta (128-102 over three seasons).
“I felt like, as a team, we did about as much as we could,” said Horford (15 points, seven boards), when asked about Atlanta’s 44-win season and No. 6 seed in the East. “We had some adversity, and we handled it well. We had a good season, looking at the big picture.”
For the Hawks and the other teams well under the salary cap, all signs point to the summer of 2014 being the more bountiful free-agent class, from a stars’ perspective.
That bears the question: Do the Hawks have the patience to wait 14 months for something that’s not a sure thing?
After all, this is the same franchise that waited seven years for Smith to develop into something more than a stat-sheet-stuffer on a good, but not necessarily transcendent contender.