With 5:39 left in the fourth quarter, Al Horford threw a pass down the court to Josh Smith. Smith wasn’t looking. The pass hit him in the head, rolled down his back and bounced on the floor.
As the crowd gasped, Smith picked the ball up, dribbled down the floor and beat the Raptors defense to the hoop for a tomahawk jam that lifted the crowd and broke a 79-79 tie. The Hawks went on to squeak by with a win, 93-92.
That moment – a moment that could have been a horrifically embarrassing, game-losing blunder, resurrected by the hands of good fortune – was a microcosm of the entire night for the Hawks.
It was a game they should have won by 30 points and a night that should have been easy. It was anything but.
The Raptors were playing the game shorthanded, missing starters Jose Calderon and Ed Davis who were sent in a trade to acquire Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies, and missing forwards Linas Klieza and Andrea Bargiani to injuries.
The team dressed eight players total.
“We didn’t execute,” said Coach Larry Drew after the win. “We’re gonna have to be better in the fourth quarter. We’ve seen this before. It happened to us in New York and it cost us the game.”
The fourth quarter wasn’t great, but it was the first half that cost the Hawks. After trailing in the first quarter 23-20, despite forcing five steals and creating seven turnovers, the Hawks played like hot garbage in the second quarter.
They threw errant passes, made offensive fouls, lost control of the ball, missed free throws, dribbled balls off their feet, neglected to box out, fell down and lost balls on set plays and on more than two occasions just stepped out of bounds as if the lines weren’t even painted on the court.
Atlanta was down by as many as 13 points during the quarter and looked up at a 10-point deficit at the half.
“My speech at halftime was pretty candid,” said Drew. “We shouldn’t have to have me coming in at halftime and saying the things I said to get our guys to respond.”
To hear some players tell it, the speech was nothing nice.
“He came in and got on us,” said forward Kyle Korver. “He doesn’t want to have to do that.”
Whatever Drew said in his “candid” halftime speech worked, because the team came out on fire in the third quarter, scoring seven unanswered points to begin the second half.
The Hawks dominated the third quarter, scoring 30 points to the Raptors 14. But that fire was quickly put out in the fourth and Toronto made an impressive comeback.
After clawing back and even taking a lead, the Raptors went to their extra-smedium lineup late in the fourth quarter, playing guards Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRoza, Alan Anderson and Terrence Ross with 6’9″ forward/center Amir Johnson late in the game.
Smith and Horford exploited the mismatches down low for easy points and were able to swat away the Raptors’ final two shot attempts and rebound the final miss as time expired.
“They’re a talented team,” Smith said after the game, “and I’m sure they’ll be more talented when they get Rudy Gay.”
Talented may be an overstatement.
Fortunately, in the NBA there are no style points and an ugly win against a mediocre team missing half its roster still goes in the ‘W’ column.