Hawks lack mental toughness in loss to Celtics

ATLANTA — In the postgame news conference following his team’s third loss in a week’s span, Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew used some form of the word ‘disappoint’ five times.

Drew, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Month, expressed his disappointment in the Hawks’ effort. He was disappointed in their lack of focus and mental toughness. Not surprisingly, he called Saturday’s 89-81 loss to the Boston Celtics the most disappointing loss of the season.

After being treated to a courtside view — at least on this night — of the Hawks’ second-half collapse to a more physical and tough team, who could blame him?

“As I told our guys, I can stomach losing but it’s how we lose,” Drew said. “And the last way you want to lose is for a team to climb up in you a little bit tougher and you don’t respond. That was clearly what happened tonight.”

For the first 24 minutes, it looked as though Drew’s postgame talk would have a cheerier ring to it. The Hawks jumped all over the Celtics in building a 53-38 halftime lead behind the efforts of guard Lou Williams.

Atlanta looked the part: Younger, hungrier and more athletic. Then, as play resumed, something changed. It looked like Boston-Atlanta clashes of old, with a smothering defense throwing the Hawks completely out of rhythm and veteran guard Paul Pierce taking over the game.

Behind Pierce’s 17 third-quarter points, the Celtics rode a wave of momentum to a 33-9 third-quarter demolition to grab the lead and never give it up. When Pierce was through, he boasted one of his most impressive stat lines of the season: 26 points (8-of-20 shooting), nine rebounds and five assists.

However, it was the Celtics’ defense that weighed heavily on the minds of Drew and his players.

“Defensively, I think they just did a great job of making it tough for us to catch,” said Williams, who finished with a game-high 28 points. “They were pressuring everything. They made it tough for Jeff (Teague) to get us into plays. They made it tough for us to get it in on inbounds plays. You know, but that’s been their makeup for a number of years. They’ve always been a defensive-minded team and tonight we got the worst of it.”

Williams was the mild silver lining in the affair (though do not try to convince Drew of that storyline) after pouring in 21 first-half points to open up a 15-point lead. Since joining the starting lineup on Dec. 22, Williams, an Atlanta native who signed with the team as a free agent this past offseason, has seen his minutes and scoring numbers increase. Before being called during pregame introductions, the diminutive guard averaged 14.3 points per game on 41-percent shooting.

Over the past eight games, though, Williams is averaging 18.3 points per game on 49-percent shooting.

Of course, not even Williams could save the Hawks’ second-half offense on Saturday night as they managed just 28 points in the final two quarters.

“They got on a run and we couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Drew said. “Again, playing a team that has that much pride, you have to know that team has no quit, that team won’t go away. And we did not respond after they smacked us. And that’s what’s disappointing about this loss.”

When asked if the loss was a sign of bigger problems with the team, Drew chose to vent his thoughts on the matter.

“I’m concerned. If I’ve used the word ‘worried’ then perhaps that’s a bad choice of words, but I’m concerned because this is the NBA and you have to expect that,” he said. “You have to expect it. When you play against teams that do smack you, you have to respond. That’s just the way it is. Everybody has to do it; every team has to do it. And when you don’t do it, you get labeled. You get a tag on you. And that’s the last thing I want on my ball club.”

The Hawks were slated for an off day Sunday following their fourth game in five nights, but Drew scratched that notion in the game’s aftermath. There are things to figure out. There are frustrations to vent. The Hawks could not stop the bleeding against Boston, but they can still figure out how to halt their recent slide.

It did not appear that every player shared Drew’s lack-of-mental-toughness sentiment, though.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” forward Josh Smith repeated twice in response to a question concerning Drew’s comments.

But just as Smith was completing his interview, someone in Philips Arena pulled the fire alarm. Lights flashed, sirens rang and the media piled out of the locker room making corny jokes and loudly musing on the fitting end to the night’s festivities.

Nobody is evacuating on the Hawks’ season — at least, not for now, not at 20-12 — but the alarms are quietly sounding.