The Atlanta Hawks did everything they could to give away the number 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and in the end it was just enough. With an ugly, sloppy and starless loss to the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, the Hawks claimed the sixth seed they seemed to have been angling for the last two games of the season.
“I’ve said it before. We are going to err on the side of caution with just one game remaining,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said before Wednesday’s game. “It makes no difference, five or six (seed). We split with both teams so I would rather play it safe than to be sorry.”
The Hawks lost the game 98-92 and will now head to Indiana for their first-round playoff series.
The outcome of the game turned out to not matter much. The Bulls took care of the Washington Wizards 95-92 to grab the fifth seed and a first-round playoff matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls finished a game ahead of the Hawks, who had a one-game lead before losing two straight to end the season.
Al Horford, Josh Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris all played the role of spectators against the Knicks. The Knicks continued to rest their top players as well. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith did not play.
Despite the absence of big names, Madison Square Garden was still a packed house (team officials called it a sellout, with 19,033 in attendance, but there were a few empty seats) and while none of the Hawks took the opportunity to shine, Knicks forward Chris Copeland stole the show.
Copeland, the rookie who has averaged just under 15 minutes a game this season, posted a career-high 33 points in 40 minutes of play. He had 30 points through three quarters and looked like he was headed for 40 or 50 before injuring his shoulder early in the fourth.
“[Copeland] is fine, he had a hell of a game,” said Knicks coach Mike Woodson after the game. “He’ll sleep well on that.”
The rookie from the University of Colorado has had an exceptional past two games. Copeland’s 33 points Wednesday and 32 points on Monday against the Charlotte Bobcats made him the first Knicks rookie since Bill Cartwright to score 30 points in back-to-back games.
“He’s been phenomenal and a really pleasant surprise,” Woodson said of Copeland. “Going back to training camp, we didn’t know if he would make our ball club. He’s gotten better and he’s learned. We knew he could score, but not like this.”
The Hawks rookies were not quite phenomenal. After going 0-6 from 3-point range and 2-13 overall against the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night, rookie guard John Jenkins was again frigid from the floor, shooting 0-6 from beyond the arc and 8-19 overall. He finished with 20 points, but his shot was simply not there.
The Hawks were 2-13 as a team from 3-point range.
Fellow rookie Mike Scott had 23 points to lead the Hawks in scoring, but did it on 22 shots. He did get his second straight double-double, finishing with 14 rebounds.
The move to rest the starters in the second half against Toronto and the entire game against New York seemed quizzical, but perhaps Drew had a plan all along. Horford told the Daily World that the team didn’t arrive in New York until 3 a.m. Wednesday morning and returning to the New York metro area for a series starting Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets may not have been what Drew wanted.
“Now we know what we need to focus on and who we need to focus on and move forward,” Anthony Tolliver said. “… As soon as we came in [the locker room, Drew] already started talking about [the Pacers] and what we are going to do to prepare for them. Now we have to start our second season.”
The Hawks play the Indiana Pacers Sunday April 21 at 1 p.m. The game will be televised on TNT. The second game, also in Indiana, will tip off at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday April 24 on NBA TV. Game three, the first game in Atlanta, will be Saturday April 27 on ESPN at 1 p.m. Game four’s tip-off time and television schedule have not yet been announced.
Atlanta and Indiana split the season series 2-2.