I'm not entirely sure why I'm saying this, but I still don't believe the Atlanta Hawks, who trail Washington 3-2 in Round 1, are doomed. This isn't blind faith: I know what the Hawks are, which is essentially a team that doesn't know what it is. I do, however, believe they have more useful players than the Wizards.
Granted, there's no assurance the Hawks will take Game 6 here Friday. They were fortunate that their bench gave them a chance to snatch Monday's Game 4 on a night they coulda/shoulda been blown out , but that was also part of having more good players. The trouble with bench players -- basketball truism here -- is that they tend to play better at home than on the road. That cuts both ways.
Bench points at Philips Arena in Game 4: Hawks 32, Wizards 23. Final score: Hawks 111, Wizards 101.
Bench points at Verizon Center in Game 5: Wizards 26, Hawks 19. Final score: Wizards 103, Hawks 99.
To say the Hawks missed a chance in Game 5 is to re-tell a story already twice told: They also missed chances in Games 1 and 2. The total margin of their three road losses is 19 points. Total margin of their home wins is 28, another reason I still have a dollop of belief.
There is, however, one thing the Wizards have that the Hawks lack. They play pretty much the same way every game. Markieff Morris and Otto Porter Jr. haven't been very good in the series -- Porter was better last night-- but the Wiz know they'll only go as far as John Wall/Bradley Beal will take them. The Hawks show up some nights and Dwight Howard reminds us that he's on the roster. Four out of five times in this series, he has been on the floor to little effect.
He scored five points in Game 5. He'd had 16 in Game 4. He'd totaled 18 in Games 1-3. He worked two minutes in Wednesday's fourth quarter. (The Hawks went small. NBA teams invariably do at the end of close games.) When he plays, he still gets rebounds -- he has 57 in five games. He also clogs the lane, which is why the Hawks' offense looks sleeker without him.
(The Hawks finishing 27th among NBA teams in regular-season offensive efficiency? That was no accident. That was the cause-and-effect of replacing Al Horford with Howard.)
The Hawks are better defensively and at rebounding when Howard plays. They're also worse at scoring. It's a trade-off that a team that's paying its starting center $70 million over three seasons shouldn't have to make, but there it is. Two springs ago, Kyle Korver sat in the Verizon Center after a playoff shootaround and said, "The beauty of our offense is that we're all dangerous." The least dangerous Hawk now is the one making the most money.
As for the stuff the Hawks did/didn't do at the end of Game 5: They didn't foul when trailing by four points inside the final 35 seconds. After rebounding a Wizards miss with 10 seconds left, they didn't shoot -- but made five dribbles and three passes -- until 0:03. (Again, they trailed by four.) That was goofy, but sometimes the Hawks do goofy stuff. That 43-39 regular season was likewise no accident.
The biggest reason I hold out hope has more to do with the Hawks' opponent. I don't trust the Wizards. They're so perimeter-oriented that there's not much recourse if Wall or Beal is having a down game. They've won two playoff series since 2005, and in neither victory was a Game 6 required, let alone a Game 7.
Then again, do I really believe these Hawks could win a Game 7 on the road, something that hasn't happened since the franchise moved here from St. Louis? Um ... well ... can I get back to you on that?