Sometimes you just know. A team gives it their best shot...and still loses. They're simply outclassed. Say hello to the Atlanta Hawks. First, let's give Mike Woodson's squad some credit: after their emphatic, epically embarrassing 43-point blowout loss in Game 1, they came back and were competitive in the sequel. And, in an unexpected development, they even made adjustments.
Indeed, after the shellacking they received in Game 1, pundits dissected Atlanta's myriad failures and pointed out that their no-ball-movement, take-turns-going-one-on-one offense might not exactly be conducive to playoff success. ESPN's John Hollinger noted that Portland and Atlanta, both of whom employ iso-heavy offensive attacks, had managed to pile up impressive offensive efficiencies the past few seasons (that were masked by their slow tempos), but had definitively struggled in the second season that is the playoffs. From Hollinger (Insider access required):
It turns out the iso-heavy offense has some benefits. Though hard on the eyes, the "iso-Joe" and "iso-Brandon" attacks produce remarkably few turnovers. Since both Roy and Johnson are good ballhandlers and nothing technically precise was asked of the other players, Atlanta and Portland were first and second, respectively, in avoiding turnovers.
Additionally, perhaps because they knew when to time their runs to the board while Johnson and Roy created shots, both Atlanta and Portland landed in the top five in offensive rebound rate -- each grabbed 28.4 percent of missed shots. [...]
[But] Iso-heavy offenses apparently have a lot more trouble when opponents have time to devise a game plan against them in a playoff series. [...] Atlanta, as the league's third-best offense, should at least be able to battle these defenses to a draw. But even before Tuesday's Game 1 implosion against Orlando, the Hawks were struggling. They can't make shots, ranking just 14th out of 16 teams in postseason TS percentage.
It certainly didn't help that the Hawks only managed to snag 18.9% of their misses in Game 1, which -- along with their horrid shooting -- doomed them to their dismal display.
So how did the Hawks manage to build a lead late into the third quarter in Game 2? They reinvented themselves. They moved the ball. Got to the free throw line. Made (almost) all of their shots from the charity stripe (30 of 31 to be exact). Hit the offensive glass (they grabbed 36.4% of their misfires). Slowed the game down even more (contrary to what you may imagine, the Hawks prefer to play at a crawl, despite their athleticism). In short, they fixed everything their critics had harped upon -- at least for three quarters. As SB Nation's Orlando Pinstriped Post points out:
It's indicative of a different strategy Atlanta coach Mike Woodson employed. The Hawks never really looked to get out in transition, and instead walked the ball up to set up a halfcourt offense, which explains the absurdly slow pace of 81 possessions. But unlike Game 1, the possessions rarely devolved into one-on-one exhibitions. No, the Hawks moved the ball from side to side, inside to outside, and it became easy to see how they finished second in offensive efficiency this season. [...]
Woodson doesn't have the best reputation, but whatever he told his team, it worked. His guys executed his offense effectively, and their coming up short in the second half has more to do with the Magic's D than anything else. The difference in the second half, I thought, was how Smith unravelled, and took the Hawks with him. Three turnovers in the third quarter, and Brown showed on replay how Smith subsequently sulked and played at half speed on Atlanta's next few possessions.
So yes: Josh Smith really does deserve much of the blame for the Hawks' Game 2 defeat. And while Atlanta should be encouraged that they can execute a game-plan that gives them a chance to win, it's just as dispiriting that despite putting together a near flawless offensive exhibition through the first three quarters, they were still neck and neck with Orlando.
And that's the key: Atlanta got absolutely pummeled defensively, giving up an absurd offensive efficiency of 135.4 to the Magic. Unless the Hawks can figure out an antidote to the high pick-and-roll between Vince Carter and Dwight Howard -- or unless the Magic's big man finds himself in foul trouble -- it's difficult to imagine Atlanta extending this series beyond a Game 5.