The Hawks are a team with a winning record, playing with a slew of injuries and still have a realistic chance of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. And on Wednesday night, in their own building, Atlanta fans almost cost the team a game.
As Kyle Korver stepped to the free throw line with 16.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Philips Arena was the loudest it had been that night. It was almost surreal. Korver was being booed at the line by fans in his own city, in a game against a Western Conference team from across the country barely hanging on to the number 8 seed in the playoffs.
“I just hear noise, good or bad” he said. “In my mind, they were cheering for us.”
It would seem unconscionable for a shooter stepping to the line in his home building to get that kind of treatment with the game on the line, but that’s how it happened.
“I’m used to it,” said guard Devin Harris who got the start for the injured Jeff Teague. “It’s funny actually, it’s not just the Lakers, it’s different teams with winning records. We just look at it as a challenge and we’re happy to get a win for our fans.”
The crowd at Philips Arena on Wednesday night was only about 30 percent Hawks fans, based on ocular estimates, but for most of the evening they made the most noise. With the Lakers down by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, the sea of purple and gold had little to cheer about.
But with 10:38 left on the clock, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant went on a spectacular tear to bring the team back, scoring 20 points in a little over seven minutes.
From there, the lead went back and forth, with the teams exchanging momentum after seemingly every timeout. The Lakers led by as many as four, while the Hawks were able to pad their advantage by five after Harris went on a scoring spree of his own.
In the absence of Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Zaza Pachulia, Lou Williams and DeShawn Stevenson, guys like Shelvin Mack, Johann Petro and John Jenkins were forced to step in and they came up big. Jenkins scored 12 points and shot 50 percent from three-point range, while Mack handled duties at the point guard for stretches, playing 14 minutes and scoring seven points. Petro started the game at center and defended Lakers’ All Star Dwight Howard all night, equaling his point total (10) and nabbing a double-double with 11 rebounds.
The breakout star of the night for the Hawks, though, was Al Horford, who, despite a modest scoring night (14 points, 14 rebounds), led the team emotionally on offense and defense.
“I thought Al set the tone for the game, he really did,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew.
Horford threw down a series of big dunks early in the first quarter to get the Hawks’ momentum rolling, including a one-handed an alley oop jam that brought the crowd, dressed in red and purple alike, to its feet.
Unfortunately the standout team effort from the Hawks was taken like pearls to swine.
Certainly, the team has been more than an occasional disappointment this season and in seasons past, but the guys that were on the floor Wednesday night deserved better than what they got from their hometown crowd.
“[The team] just went out there and handled our business,” Horford said of responding to a hostile home crowd, “and our fans got behind us.”
The players are thankful to those fans. More than most people realize.