It feels very unfair when an instant of failure overshadows a huge, excellent game. It's very unfair, but it's also very Marvin Williams.
Williams — a serviceable but unspectacular role player who had the poor luck of being drafted immediately before Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and is thus forever damned — had what the Atlanta Hawks-focused blog Hoopinion called "easily [his] best game of the season," scoring 29 points on 14 shots, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots as the Hawks squared off in a Sunday afternoon showcase against the visiting New York Knicks. But with the game on the line, the Knicks leading by one and a chance to win it, he came up a few feet short and a few tenths of a second late. From The Associated Press:
With just more than 3 seconds to play, [Joe] Johnson inbounded to Williams near the Knicks' bench. The plan was for him to hand the ball back to Johnson on a curl, but New York rookie Iman Shumpert [...] bumped Johnson off his path.
Williams turned and beat [Amar'e] Stoudemire down the lane only to find both he and [Carmelo] Anthony contesting at the rim [...] A split-second after the ball was rejected, the buzzer sounded.
The AP got that bit wrong, actually; repeated viewings of the replay show Williams in mid-flight, the ball still in his hands, when the red light signifying the game's end went on and the horn blared, sealing a 113-112 Knicks win.
"Marvin made the right play," Hawks coach Larry Drew said after the game, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Probably didn't get there quick enough, but he got to the rim and we got the look we wanted."
I'd suggest "probably" is kind of an understatement, considering the game ended before Williams let the ball go. That seems like a pretty clear-cut way to define whether a play developed quickly enough to me.
What makes the non-buzzer-beater especially galling is that the Hawks burned nearly two seconds by not calling timeout immediately after Anthony missed a 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left in the fourth. Joe Johnson rebounded the miss and, rather than calling timeout right away, passed to Kirk Hinrich; by the time Atlanta took its 20, the clock had run down to 3.2 seconds. Without that slight slip-up, the Hawks might have had the extra few tenths of a second they needed for Williams to get all the way to the basket, making questions about whether or not he was fouled on the play relevant rather than moot. (It will shock you, I'm sure, to learn that Williams felt like he was fouled, while Stoudemire didn't think "anyone should complain that there was any contact.")
The Knicks' Sunday afternoon win came without starting center Tyson Chandler, who sat down to rest his overworked bones — he's played a team-high 2,029 minutes in 61 games the season, just 30 minutes less than he logged in 74 appearances for the Dallas Mavericks last year, and had seen at least 35 minutes of floor time in eight of the Knicks' last 12 games. That allowed Amar'e Stoudemire, who was relatively quiet in his Friday night return from injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers, to slide to the center position and Carmelo Anthony to stay at the power forward spot, where he's been a one-man army for the past month.
In that alignment, both stars excelled, with Anthony posting a game-high 39 points (albeit on 32 shots) to go with 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals, and Stoudemire coming alive for 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting and 12 rebounds. Whether they can play so effectively together when Chandler's back in the lineup remains very much an open question, but for one day at least, Anthony and Stoudemire provided exactly the sort of two-headed monster that Knicks brass envisioned when they imported 'Melo last season.
The win also kept the Knicks' shot at jumping up to the East's No. 6 seed alive. At 34-30, New York trails the Orlando Magic (36-28) by two games with each team having two games left on the schedule; if the Knicks win their remaining two games (at home against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, on the road against the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday) and the Magic lose their final two games (home for Charlotte on Wednesday, at the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday), the Knicks would leapfrog Orlando by virtue of winning their season series with the Magic.
Knicks fans holding out hope for a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers rather than the top-seeded Chicago Bulls or No. 2 Miami Heat might have caught a break when Magic point guard Jameer Nelson went down with a left calf contusion during Orlando's blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night. Nelson put "no timetable" on the injury after the third straight loss for an Orlando team already playing without All-Star center Dwight Howard, who's out for the season, and starting small forward Hedo Turkoglu, whose postseason status remains in doubt. Despite the Magic's recent struggles, though, they need just one win or one New York loss to lock up the sixth seed and prevent the Knicks from moving above the seventh slot.
On the Atlanta side, the Hawks are locked into a first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, the teams' first postseason meeting since their memorable seven-game affair in the 2007-08 opening round. Unlike that year's 1-8 matchup between a 66-win Boston team and a sub-.500 Atlanta squad, though, the Hawks can have home-court advantage this time around — the Celtics will be guaranteed the higher seed because they won the Atlantic Division, but if Atlanta can hang on to the one-game lead they now hold over Boston in the standings and finish the season with a better record, they'll get the extra home game, thanks to the vagaries of the NBA rulebook. (If the two teams wind up tied at season's end, Boston gets home court because they went 2-1 against the Hawks during the regular season.)
Atlanta (38-26) finishes out with home games against the Clippers on Tuesday and the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday; Boston (37-27) closes out with home games against the Heat on Tuesday and Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.
Video via CBSSports.com's Ben Golliver.