Great game last night. Tied with only a few minutes to go, both teams trading punches down the stretch, a last-second steal with a chance to win? Fun, exciting stuff. And that’s why it sucked so much.
Knowing the outcome now, I’d have preferred Pierce rested his knee for the game (his slow rotations and injury-influenced shot selection cost them the game, although that was hardly the only thing). Then I wish the Hawks had busted open the game early, so the starters could have sat and not grinded out huge minutes in a wholly disappointing loss. I hated how good that game was.
But the reality is that, now that Horford and Smith are back, this is the intense, competitive series that everyone thought it would be. Horford’s their best player. He completely changes their approach. And, by some devil’s miracle, he basically looks like himself. Great for basketball! Still: sucks.
Horford’s return swings this series toward the Hawks in a couple of ways:
Rebounding. Having two guys who can rebound is more than twice as valuable as having just one. I have no evidence to support that and I have no intention of trying. But that’s how I feel: Horford’s presence drastically increases the Hawks’ effectiveness on the glass. Atlanta gave the Celtics a rebounding swirlie in Game 5, and they’re probably going to do it again.
Matchup flexibility. Back when Mike Woodson was expressionlessly pacing the Hawks bench and making his players switch on every screen, Al Horford was accustomed to guarding every position…but he actually did it very well. He’s fast in all directions and knows what he’s doing. Bret LaGree of Hoopinion once suggested that Horford was the team’s best perimeter defender (this was back in the Bibby-Hinrich-Jamal Crawford days). So having Horford out there neutralizes a lot of the matchup advantages that Rondocould have achieved off screens in previous games.
Scoring efficiency. The Hawks, until Game 5, were running an unapologetically low-percentage attack on offense. Guys like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith graciously accepted Boston’s invitation to take a bunch of contested long jumpers, and if their bigs ever got involved it was only by accident. But Horford’s a high-efficiency scorer. He can shoot if you give it to him, but he’s capable of big numbers around the basket, too. Jeff Teague was the closest thing they had to a rim attack before Horford (based on how Josh Smith was conducting himself).
Look: everyone on this site predicted that this series would go six games except Pina (sorry to dog you like that, Pina). So did most of the pickers in the Truehoop Stat Geek Showdown. A Game 5 loss is nothing to call the cops over. But looking at how the Hawks have evolved Lamarck-style with Horford coming back, winning in six games looks more like a necessity than a luxury. This series reminds me, not in a good way, of that ubiquitous Kevin Millar quote after the Sox were down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS.
“Don’t let us win tonight. They’ve got to win because if we win we’ve got Petie coming back today and then Schilling will pitch Game 6 and then you can take that fraud stuff and put it to bed. Don’t let the Sox win this game.”
You’re probably like, “That was a 3-0 series. This one is 3-2, you idiot. Obviously you don’t let them win.” I understand that. I’m just saying the potential for a comeback from 3-1 is there. Apply it to last night’s game, I guess: you let them win that game, then you’re going back to Boston where the home-court advantage is probably neutralized by the additional fatigue and Horford’s reemergence. A loss there and a return to Atlanta would, needless to say, suck.
Again, resist calling the cops over Game 5. If you predicted a six-game series like everyone else, you implicitly predicted a Game 5 loss. But a six-game series is essential now. Don’t let them win tonight.