On Thursday night, Philips Arena opened its doors for the Atlanta Hawks first home playoff game of the 2014 NBA postseason.
After having stolen home court advantage, the air in Atlanta was heavy, of course it was humid—welcome to Georgia, but it was heavy with hope and expectation.
All week long, ever since the Hawks 101-93 Game 1 road victory in Indiana on Saturday, the talk among locals has been upset. Not just a game; the series. The team’s confidence only served to fuel the fans hopes and expectations throughout the week.
Walking through the doors at Philips Arena—where the Pacers had previously managed only two wins in their last 16 visits—the energy in the building was palpable.
All of the pressure rested on Indiana’s shoulders and everyone knew it.
In retrospect, the player introductions seemed like a metaphor for the forthcoming game. The Pacers were announced with no fanfare. Their names, a mere whisper in the bustling noise of fans still pouring into the arena.
The public address announcer, famous local radio personality Ryan Cameron, introduced the team’s mascot, Harry the Hawk, first. Harry came running in with the team flag, same as always, but it was different. At least something was different. Never in my limited experience had he been introduced separately.
But that wasn’t it. What was it?
The crowd — among the music and the P.A. announcer, the fans roared above all.
It was like being at a WWE event and hearing the crowd reaction to glass shattering, when fans know that Stone Cold Steve Austin is coming to the ring. Only, this wasn’t Stone Cold running out onto the court, it was an NBA mascot. If that didn’t set the stage for the electric energy that would permeate throughout the arena, the team introduction definitely did.
Cameron did the usual, “And now, introducing the starters for your…” Only, it wasn’t the usual. He bellowed the team name in an unending breath, like Michael Buffer yelling, “Let’s get ready to rummmmmmmmbbbblllllllllllllle!” He must have held the last syllable in “Atlanta” for 30 or more seconds before ending with “Hawks!” Then, the lights went out, the music hit and the home team’s intro video began on the scoreboard above the court.
Shooting guard Kyle Korver, in his second year with the Hawks, said it was the best Atlanta moment he had witnessed.
Our crowd was amazing… That was the best Hawks crowd I’ve ever been a part of. It’s one thing to cheer when your team makes a play. It’s another to cheer your team to make a play. We really felt the energy.”
The energy from the fans was amazing—best it’s been in decades, if not, possibly, ever.
Atlanta Hawks Attendance
For reference, Philips Arena advertises a basketball seating capacity of 18,118.
A sellout crowd, such as the one Atlanta had for their 121-114 January 20 win over the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, is 19,262.
Thursday’s crowd was 18,124 strong—shy of being a sellout, but still six people over recommended capacity.
And, contrary to most home games wherein the crowd is split between Hawks supporters and transient fans cheering the visiting team, this was an all Atlanta crowd.
Though certainly unrelated, for Atlanta—perennially known as having one of the worst fan bases (with regards to attendance) in the NBA, there seems to have been a direct correlation between attendance and team performance over the past five seasons.
|NBA Season||Avg. Attendance (Rank)||Capacity Percentage||Record (Playoff Seed)|
For historical reference, when the Hawks played at the Omni Coliseum in the days of Dominique Wilkins and the Highlight Factory, the best attendance mark reached was an average of 15,714 during the 1988-89 season. Considering the Omni’s seating capacity (16,378), that was 96 percent.
At full capacity, with practically everyone cheering for Atlanta’s team; this was what home court advantage was supposed to feel like. And, did it ever.
The first quarter seemed to set the tone for the rest of the game.
Indiana got the ball first, but turned it over after star forward Paul George committed a traveling violation.
To further compound his individual lack of focus, on the ensuing possession, he overplayed Hawks’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver coming off of a give-and-go screen set by center Pero Antic. The result saw George pick up a quick foul on a three-point attempt. Korver made all three.
Two errors by the Pacers’ star player at the onset of a critical Game 3 started the Pacers off in a 3-0 hole.
A clear indicator of the energy in the arena came a couple minutes later, as Antic pulled up for a three that missed. The crowd, acting as though they had a shared consciousness, began cheering as he launched the shot, reaching a crescendo in a collective sigh.
Mere seconds later, just three minutes after sending Korver to the line for three—and now behind 2-7, George committed an offensive foul, his second personal. He would have to sit the remaining 8:24 in the first quarter.
Losing their best player would seem to have been a turning point in the early part of the game. However, on the strength of 10 first quarter points from forward David West, the Pacers managed to keep the game close, ending in a 24-24 tie.
The second quarter remained competitive, with both teams trading shots.
George made his return for Indiana at the two-and-a-half minutes into the quarter. Other than collecting four rebounds, he had no impact on the flow of the game, attempting only one shot (missed) and getting zero trips to the free throw line. He had no assists, one turnover (a pass out of bounds) and nothing else.
The second quarter saw very little scoring from either team, 15 and 14 points respectively. Even amidst such dismal scoring, there was a sequence midway through the period that really kept the fans into the action.
Hawks’ sixth man Lou Williams blocked a short layup attempt by Pacers’ reserve Evan Turner. Backup point guard Shelvin Mack collected the rebound and pushed the ball down court hitting forward DeMarre Carroll with a pass for a fastbreak jumper, giving Atlanta a four-point lead. The fans roared.
When Ryan Cameron declared an Indiana timeout, the volume only got louder. The Hawks media team used the timeout to broadcast a very intense promo video further rousing the crowd.
On the Pacers’ ensuing possession, reserve forward Luis Scola drove to the basket. Antic rotated across and appeared to have established position outside of the restricted circle, yet the officials called a blocking foul. The crowd was furious, chanting their displeasure in unison, “Refs, you suck! Refs, you suck!” At the end of an otherwise uneventful quarter, Atlanta held a one-point lead, 39-38.
The third quarter is where the momentum swung—not just in Game 3, but in the entire series. In each game, the team to win the third quarter has gone on to win the game.
Atlanta did not open the third quarter with the most promising of plays.
Point guard Jeff Teague turned the ball over with a pass out of bounds on the Hawks first possession. That was followed by Antic fouling George on a layup. The resulting free throws would give Indiana their first lead of the game.
The Hawks responded with an 11-2 run that included a critical three-point play by Carroll and was capped with a fastbreak three-pointer by Korver, giving the home team an eight-point lead. Timeout Indiana.
Five minutes later, forward Mike Scott got a steal, passed ahead to Teague for a breakaway dunk and a 10-point lead. Excitement in the building was fever pitch; the cheers, thunderous.
This may have been the loudest moment I’ve personally experienced in Atlanta in the past few years. The energy in the arena was tremendous. No disrespect to Lou Williams, the sixth man had to have been the fans in Game 3.
The final four and a half minutes of the third are a lesson in resiliency.
Every time a Pacer hit a major shot, threatening to cut into the lead, a Hawk responded.
Paul George hit a three; Williams hit one too. The Pacers reeled off four consecutive points in the paint—a Stephenson layup and George dunk. Williams dribbles out the remaining seconds on the clock, pulls up…hits another three. The Hawks lead is back up to nine, heading into the final period 67-58.
The Atlanta crowd was going crazy.
The fourth quarter was a team versus two men. The Atlanta Hawks continued to execute their offensive game plan; spreading the floor, attacking the basket, making passes. Eight players scored one or more points.
The Pacers, however, would have been an afterthought en route to a humiliating blowout had it not been for the efforts of Stephenson and Scola, who were responsible for all of Indiana’s nine made field goals—each scored 12 of their team’s 27 points. The rest of the team made zero-of-eight shots.
Their efforts were matched with timely threes that kept the lead out of reach.
Stephenson and Scola went on a 9-1 run, cutting the lead to four. A quick steal gave the Pacers a chance to cut the deficit to two (or even one), but Stephenson—whose dribbling was, at times, a bit out of control—lost command of the ball and dribbled on the boundary line. Turnover.
That blunder, though ill timed, seemed insignificant when compared to C.J. Watson fouling Korver on a made three-pointer on the next play. The four-point play not only stretched the lead back to eight; it kept the crowd in the game, eliciting a booming roar.
Scola scored four more points, two of which came on a layup that followed what appeared to be a blatant (yet uncalled) traveling violation. The crowd harkened back to its rabid, wrestling like tendencies, showering down a chorus of boos before filling the arena with the all-too-familiar “Refs, you suck!” chant.
Moments later, Pacers guard George Hill committed a costly turnover that resulted in Teague getting a fastbreak dunk, a nine-point lead and a deafening applause.
During the ensuing timeout, I couldn’t help but ask, “What happened to this town? It used to be that the Hawks couldn’t get fans to come to games, now the atmosphere is electric.”
Two minutes go by, before the three that may change officiating—more on that in a moment.
With the shot clock counting down, Teague dribbled to his left, where three defenders—two Pacers and the sideline—were laying in wait. He ran right at them, pulling up and heaving a desperation shot that fell straight through the basket, nothing but net. Ryan Cameron bellowed, “Teague for THREEEEEEE!”
The crowd was raucous. The atmosphere was insane.
Later, during a stop in play, the officials reviewed Teague’s three. It appeared very apparent that his right foot went out of bounds as he rounded the corner before heaving his miraculous shot. Unfortunately for the Pacers, the referees were unable to reverse the call.
Just hours before Game 3, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had addressed the media regarding the possible future expansion of replay for league officials.
So far, in terms of all of our triggers, we’ve tried to maintain a line of what is clearly objectively ascertainable. You know, foot on the line or not, buzzer or not. My sense is where we’ll end up is giving the referees more discretion over what they can look at once we go to replay.”
If there hadn’t already been enough plays to merit such a statement from Silver, the Teague play may be the extra kick in the pants necessary to elicit such change in the offseason.
Two free throws later, the lead was back up to nine points. Stephenson then got fouled on a drive to the basket. However, he missed both free throws. Korver made him pay, putting the game on ice with a wide open three-pointer from the corner. The fans were screaming.
The Pacers should have kicked themselves. How can you possibly justify leaving the league’s most efficient volume three-point scorer open? It was a complete defensive breakdown.
To make matters worse, Stephenson stepped out of bounds, committing a turnover.
Teague dribbled around a high-post screen to an open lane for an uncontested layup. The lead was now 14.
Pacers star Paul George, once considered the third-best player in the league, went to the free throw line seeming a shell of himself in front of a hostile crowd. The chants rained down, “Overrated!”
He barely made the first, rattling it in. “Overrated!” He missed the second. “Overrated!”
In Game 3, he was just that—overrated, having finished with only 12 points on 27-percent shooting.
The final minute of the game was an unending sequence of fouls and free throws that resulted in a 98-85, 13-point Hawks victory. DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” blared over the PA system as fans left the arena.
If Game 3 had the air of an upset, Game 4 had the feeling of arrogance—at least, as far as the fans are concerned.
It was as if Atlanta fans were not concerned with the game.
It may have been the other activities going on that morning—like the March for Babies (March of Dimes) walk. Or, it may have been a general malaise, as though the series were already Atlanta’s to lose.
Without polling everyone in attendance, no one will ever truly know. However, in my mind, two things clearly illustrated the difference from Game 3 to Game 4: Crowd attendance and energy.
Less than a half hour before the game—on a Saturday, the arena was still noticeably empty. The stands did not fill out until the end of the first quarter.
The final attendance numbers were near sellout, 19,043—higher than Game 3, but there was a noticeably larger Indiana fan presence. When the Pacers went on runs, the Philips Arena crowd wasn’t just hushed, there was an audible cheer of support for the visiting team.
The energy in the crowd was not the same as the previous game. It was flat.
At different times during the game, it seemed as though Ryan Cameron and Harry the Hawk had to coerce the crowd to be excited. Between the inability to sell out to a nearly all pro-Atlanta crowd and the lack of enthusiasm, Game 3 had a feel more akin to a hotly contested regular season game than that of the playoff ilk.
Credit where credit is due, the Indiana Pacers came ready to play.
From the onset of the first quarter, they were the aggressors. They jumped out to an early 8-0 lead behind two threes and two free throws, courtesy of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
In eerily similar fashion to Game 3—wherein George had early foul trouble, this time around it was Stephenson who met the same fate, picking up his second personal just four minutes into the contest. Unlike his teammate, his emotions got the better of him and he picked up a technical as well.
The White Stripes’ song, Seven Nation Army, blared over the P.A. system. The fans really got into the song. It may have been the most energetic moment from the crowd until late in the fourth quarter.
The ensuing technical free throw, made by Kyle Korver, was but one point in an 8-0 run by Atlanta to tie the game.
If ever there was a moment in the first quarter that could have served as an indication that it was not going to be the Hawks night, it had to be seven minutes into the game. Contrary to Coach Budenholzer’s Spurs-like game plan and the team’s typical efficient execution of his offense, Atlanta committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions. Two were errant passes (to no one) due to breakdowns in communication.
In a reversal of roles, the Pacers benefited from a more balanced offensive attack, having seven players on the scoreboard en route to a 29-22 lead by quarter’s end. The Hawks, led by Paul Millsap’s 12 points, had only three players register any points—the others being Korver and Jeff Teague.
Atlanta bounced back with resiliency and much better execution in the second quarter, holding Indiana to just 13 points on 25-percent shooting.
The Hawks bench was huge, contributing 16 of the team’s 26 points in the quarter. Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack each had seven points, helping the team to carry a six point, 48-42 lead into the half.
In similar fashion to the three games, the third quarter proved to be pivotal. Unfortunately for the home team, this would prove to be the second time in four games that the third did not go their way.
Atlanta had built up a 10-point lead early in the period, but the Pacers—led by David West and Paul George—whittled the deficit down to four, forcing Coach Mike Budenholzer to call a timeout. What was so different? They had made runs and cut leads before in the series. This time—in this game—the team was into it … together.
All throughout their late season funk, stretching into the playoffs, much attention has been given to the body language of the players. Guys on the bench seemed disinterested, not invested and lacking emotion. But, their demeanor had changed, at least for Game 4, in this half.
Bench players were standing, excitedly watching the action and cheering West and George on as they made their run. Indiana’s two leaders shined in the third, matching the Hawks scoring output with 17 combined points, giving their team a two-point edge heading into the fourth.
In contrast, the fans in Philips Arena appeared to be lacking in energy. Where they were credited with willing the home team on to make plays in Game 3, there just didn’t seem to be the same level of passion and intensity in the crowd. The atmosphere was not the same.
The final period played right into Indiana’s hands. Sure, the Hawks made some runs—regaining the lead and pushing it as high as six. However, the game slowed down. Coach Budenholzer prefers a quick pace, but the Pacers defense really made it difficult for Atlanta to get quick, much less easy, looks. Too often they were forced to run the shot clock down, looking for options. They even incurred a shot-clock violation.
Compounding their clock woes, the fourth quarter saw play stopped twice for jump balls and multiple times for instant replays.
In some ways, it could be said that the Pacers bested Atlanta at its own game. They limited the home team to only six fast break points while out-hustling them for 19 of their own.
Kyle Korver, when asked about the disparity in fastbreak points, attributed some of the blame to their commitment to rebounding in Game 4 but gave Indiana their due.
I thought we were aggressive going to the offensive boards and we got some, especially at the beginning of the third quarter when we got a bunch of them. We have to get back on defense. That’s where our defense starts. We didn’t do that quite as well.
“They played with a lot of energy. They had their backs against the wall, and I thought that was the best game they played the whole series. Give them credit. There are things we can do better, but they also played a really good game.”
The Hawks still had chances to tie, and even win, the game. They just didn’t execute; missed shots, untimely turnovers. In the end, Indiana hung on to win by three, 91-88.
Where Game 3 had an electric atmosphere that energize the home team’s players on the court, Game four seemed to fall flat. The home victory that put Atlanta up 2-1 had fans feverishly screaming in jubilation well past the final buzzer. In Game 4, as the clock hit zero, the fans energy was faint.
The Hawks now prepare for a critical Game 5 showdown in Indiana on Monday night. Can they swing the momentum in the series back in their favor and give Atlanta fans reason to hope again before Thursday’s elimination game at Philips Arena?