ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks left the door open, be it ever so slightly, for the New York Knicks to overtake them for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Playing against the lowly Detroit Pistons — who were minus former Hawk Josh Smith, who was ruled out shortly before tipoff with tendinitis in his left knee — the Hawks suffered a costly mental letdown and their magic number to clinch a playoff berth remained stuck at three on Tuesday with a 102-95 loss to the Pistons at Philips Arena.
Because the game was a make-up from earlier this season when ice storms forced it to be postponed, the Hawks will play their second of two home games in two nights on Wednesday when they host Boston (23-54), another team below them in the standings. The Hawks’ loss on Tuesday puts a bit more significance on Wednesday’s game.
Any combination of three losses by the Knicks (33-45) or wins by the Hawks will clinch the playoff berth for Atlanta, which fell to 34-43 and has five games remaining.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said his team’s focus was not what it should have been to start the game as Detroit (29-49) built a 35-27 lead at the end of the first quarter. On Sunday, the Hawks went on the road and pulverized Indiana, the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, and on the same day the Knicks lost to Miami, making Hawks’ clinching scenarios much more likely.
Perhaps that deprived the players of the urgency they needed.
"Well, I referenced I think there was a lack of focus to start the game," Budenholzer said, "and so coming off a win, coming off a loss, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. We have to have more focus and be mentally tougher to start a game and throughout a game.
"So you can never explain why."
In that first quarter, Detroit manhandled the Hawks on the offensive glass. The Pistons had 15 second-chance points and six offensive rebounds to the Hawks’ two. In total, Detroit outrebounded the Hawks 15-7 in the opening period.
Later in the game, the Hawks struggled to score when they needed to. Aside from Paul Millsap (10-of-19 shooting for 24 points) and Jeff Teague (5-of-9 for 15 points) the Hawks had some atrocious shooting nights.
DeMarre Carroll shot 2-for-10, Pero Antic went 4-for-13 and Kyle Korver shot 4-for-16. In that sense, the Hawks could have use guard Lou Williams, who helps to supply some offensive punch off the bench, but Williams was unavailable with a hamstring injury.
Six-foot-11, 250-pound Pistons forward Greg Monroe finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds and 6-10, 270-pound center Andre Drummond had 19 on 7-of-9 shooting and pulled down a game-high 17 rebounds.
"They’re just big on the inside," Teague said. "They’re athletes and it’s hard to get layups."
Midway through the third quarter, the Hawks briefly gained the lead. Carroll’s driving layup put them up 69-67 with 6:24 left in the period. They pushed the lead to four but with 1:06 left in the quarter Detroit’s Brandon Jennings’ putback gave his team a 79-78 lead.
The Hawks never regained the lead.
Budenholzer said he thought the Hawks exhausted themselves in mounting their comeback and didn’t have enough to finish off the effort. Antic cut the lead to 94-91 with 2:32 left in regulation.
However, after that the Hawks missed their next four field goal attempts. Down 96-91 with 27.5 seconds left, Antic committed a turnover on an inbounds play that sealed their fate.
"We’re still in the driver’s seat," Korver said. "We’ve got to take care of our business. Tonight was the night. Tonight was one we wish we would have gotten. It’s probably going to come down to the end."
Teague agreed that the Hawks were "fine" in terms of the playoff race. But Tuesday represented a missed opportunity.
"Definitely disappointing," Hawks center Elton Brand said. "We have our playoff destiny in our hands so we want to protect our home court with the few games we have left, especially at home, so definitely a disappointing one."