Wiedmer: Are Hawks ready for a deep run?

Wiedmer: Are Hawks ready for a deep run?

April 25th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

My (Magic) kingdom for a made free throw?

If you're an Orlando Magic fan scratching your head over how you find yourself in a 3-1 hole this morning in your best-of-seven, opening-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, free throws may not be your chief concern.

After all, you hit 21 of 29 foul shots overall in Sunday's 88-85 loss to the Hawks, who, by the way, missed 8 of 20.

But Magic superstar Dwight Howard missed three of four free throws down the stretch, freebies that technically cost Orlando a tie game and overtime, free throws that from a practical standpoint forced the Magic to attempt a 3-pointer to tie on their final possession rather than slip it inside for a deuce that might have won or tied, depending on Howard's other foul line efforts.

But Howard did miss those three late foul shots and the Magic lost to suddenly Hotlanta yet again to prove that the Hawks' 3-1 record against Team Disney during the regular season wasn't as much a fluke as originally believed.

But can Atlanta finish the deal on Tuesday in Orlando, or back home on Thursday? And if the Hawks can, what are the chances they could advance beyond the conference semifinals?

"In the past, this team has been in that situation [an opponent's rally] and not responded," said Hawks head coach Larry Drew of a late Magic run thwarted by Atlanta. "But we responded this time. We're starting to grow."

They were starting to grow moss down the stretch of the regular-season. Beaten up physically and stung mentally by the trade that sent away longtime point guard Mike Bibby, the Hawks lost their final six regular-season games.

Couple that with their 3-9 all-time playoff record against the Magic entering this series and it was easy to expect Atlanta to once more bow out early from the postseason.

Instead, the Hawks opened the playoffs with a shocking road win, then followed it up with two victories this past weekend to come within one win of advancing to a probable second-round matchup against Chicago.

And just in case you're wondering if the Hawks could win that one, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose wore a walking boot to a Sunday film session and did not practice for the team's upcoming game against the Indiana Pacers, who trail the Bulls 3-1 heading into Tuesday's game in Chicago.

Even if the Bulls survive the Pacers without Rose, if he's unable to take the floor against Atlanta, the Windy City's chances of advancing will blow as cold as a winter storm off Lake Michigan.

Not that the Hawks are the only stunning story in these playoffs. Memphis not only won its first NBA playoff game ever against the San Antonio Spurs eight days ago, it followed that performance with a second win over the aging Spurs on Saturday night in Bluff City.

Let the Grizzlies win again tonight inside the FedEx Forum and Elvis might no longer be the biggest name in town.

But within that series is also a painful lesson about character and class and respect for the game. Attempting to close out the season the right way, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich played his starters in a meaningless regular-season finale, hoping to keep some rhythm for the postseason.

Mano Ginobili, the Spurs best perimeter threat, hyperextended his elbow early in the game and missed the first playoff game against the Griz, which the Spurs lost.

Meanwhile, the Hawks, the Bulls, the Celtics and a lot of other teams rested their starters more than once down the stretch.

"I don't think you want to go into the playoffs without momentum," said the Hawks' Drew, "but I didn't want guys limping into the playoffs, either."

At least if the Bulls limp out of the playoffs against either the Pacers or the Hawks - assuming Atlanta polishes off Orlando - they lost Rose in postseason play. If you're the Spurs, you may have limped out the playoffs because you refused to mail your way into them.

If there's not a message there somewhere for future NBA postseasons, there should be.

Until then, a lot of guys need to practice their free throws for the rest of these playoffs, beginning with the otherwise magnificent Howard.