For the fans, it seemed like this was going to end the most Atlanta-way possible.
Late in the fourth quarter with a four-point lead, all the Hawks had to do was get the ball inbounded and take the foul to go to the free throw line. The inbound pass found its way to Al Horford, the steady rock for the Hawks, the franchise cornerstone… but Horford panicked, causing a turnover.
The turnover led to two free throws for the Wizards and with with seven seconds left, the Hawks found themselves in the same spot: they just needed to get to the free throw line.
This time Horford held on to the ball and took the foul, and he headed to the free throw line. There, Horford missed the first, the ball bouncing off the rim four times before finally caroming out. Horford connected on the second free throw, putting the Hawks up three with seven seconds remaining.
And then Paul Pierce happened… or at least, so we thought. The Hawks’ defense on the Wizards was stifling for those seven seconds, forcing Pierce to take a heavily contested, fadeaway corner 3. Pierce, who has been a thorn for the Hawks ever since the 2008 first round series between the Hawks and Celtics, continued to torture the fans of Atlanta, sinking the improbable shot as the buzzer was sounding.
The city of Atlanta collectively groaned. They had seen this show before; they had seen what appeared to be a playoff victory unluckily snatched from them so many times before — in basketball, baseball, and football — that they were ready to be like Paul Pierce and call “SERIES!” for the Wizards.
But as it has been for much of this season, some luck finally bounced the Hawks’ way. The replays showed that Pierce did not get the shot off in time, meaning the Hawks won the game 94-91 and the series 4-2 for the right to head to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
As always, the Hawks were led by a collective effort, but it was DeMarre Carroll that put them over the top once again. Carroll notched a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds, and when the game was on the line, the Hawks put the ball in Carroll’s hands. Twice in the last minute, the Hawks found Carroll on off-ball cuts towards the rim. Horford, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver spaced the play perfectly and Jeff Teague delivered two great passes to give Carroll the ball. And when the dust settled, Carroll — who has been the Hawks’ MVP so far in the playoffs — was proving his worth by doing the most with the opportunity that his teammates were helping create for him.
Despite the miscue and unlucky bounce for Horford in the final seconds of the game, he still provided the steady game that we have come to expect from him. Horford tallied 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting, and when the game was hanging in the balance, he provided two clutch defensive plays by blocking a Bradley Beal layup attempt and perfectly defending the putback by John Wall.
Millsap only scored one basket in the second half, but it was his 15 first half points that buoyed the Hawks over the first 24 minutes of play. Where Millsap left off in the second half, Teague took over. The starting point guard scored 13 points and dished out five assists in the second half, acting as the perfect complement to Carroll’s shot-making. Overall, Teague finished with a stuffed statline of 20 points, five rebounds, and seven assists.
The Hawks are used to having time off around this time of year, and for now they have that… but they have to go back to work on Wednesday, as the Eastern Conference Finals will begin that day in Philips Arena.