Turns out, he was wrong.
Back home and all tied up in a series they expected to be on the verge of wrapping up, the Hawks got an uncharacteristic dressing-down from their low-key star.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Johnson said Tuesday after the Hawks practiced for the pivotal fifth game. “We come into this situation talking so much about what we’re going to do—this and that, this and that—yet we haven’t done nothing. We haven’t done nothing we set out to do.”
Atlanta looked unstoppable in the first two games at home, taking advantage of mismatches all over the court, working the ball crisply to the open man and playing aggressively at the defensive end.
All that changed when they got to Milwaukee.
The Hawks sleepwalked through Game 3, playing as though they expected the Bucks to roll over instead of come out with a sense of urgency. Milwaukee, one of the worst-shooting teams in the league, made 51 percent from the field on the way to a 107-89 blowout.
“We were nonexistent,” Johnson said.
Atlanta was much more competitive in Game 4, a 111-104 loss, but still allowed the Bucks to connect on a staggering 55 percent of their shots.
“Throughout the game, they were just more aggressive, getting all the loose balls, all the big rebounds and just making all the big plays,” Johnson moaned.
Suddenly, the Bucks have the momentum heading into Game 5 on Wednesday night.
“When we’re on the road, we don’t play with the energy and the passion that we do when we’re at home,” Johnson said. “It kills us.”
Milwaukee still must win at least one game in Atlanta, but at least the Bucks know they can get by without Bogut, who was lost for the year when he took a gruesome fall on the court with two weeks left in the regular season.
“I feel like we’ve had confidence the whole series, even though we were down two games to none,” Bucks rookie star Brandon Jennings(notes) said. “Now we have to go into Atlanta, try to steal one and come back and try to finish up business on Friday (in Game 6). We’re not a good playoff team until we win a game on the road.”
The Hawks feel the same way, even though they can win this best-of-seven series just by winning every game at Philips Arena. That philosophy wouldn’t work in the second round—assuming Atlanta even makes it that far.
No. 2 seed Orlando already wrapped up its series with a sweep of Charlotte. The Magic will be well-rested by the time they face either Atlanta or Milwaukee, another development that peeves Johnson.
“I just think we got a little bit ahead of ourselves, considering the fact that we just took care of business the first two games here,” he said. “We all thought we’d go up there and do the same. But we had another thing coming.”
Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said he doesn’t mind Johnson being so hard on the team.
“It’s OK to do that,” Woodson said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together to win. Everyone is fighting for one another. You see bickering on the floor once in a while with players. That’s healthy, I think. Everyone is policing each other, pushing each other to do the right thing. It’s OK for Joe to come out publicly and say that.”
Johnson could use a little more help than he got in Milwaukee. He averaged 27 points but Atlanta’s scoring wasn’t nearly as balanced as it was the first two games, each of which ended with all five starters in double figures.
In Game 3, Al Horford(notes) was the only other starter with two numbers in the points column—and just barely, with 10 points. On Monday, Johnson had more help with sixth man Jamal Crawford(notes) scoring 21 points, Josh Smith(notes) 20 and Mike Bibby(notes) 15. But Horford was held to eight points and Marvin Williams(notes) managed only four.
The Bucks turned things around by attacking the lane relentlessly, using Jennings’ quickness to create scoring chances against the bigger Hawks.
“With this team, you have to keep attacking,” Jennings said. “Sometimes the layups are there, sometimes they’re not. I was able to actually penetrate and find open players.”
“When he plays like that, we’re a team that’s hard to stop,” Jennings said. “He set the tone for us.”
Asked whether the Hawks needed to make any major adjustments, Johnson shook his head. He’s more concerned about the little things.
“Play with more energy, more passion, more heart. Just being a lot tougher,” he said. “At their house, they were way more tougher than we were.”
Instead of coming home to wrap up the series and get ready for Orlando, the Hawks face a must-win situation on Wednesday night.
“I just think,” Johnson said, “we’ve made it a lot more difficult than it should be.”