It's like every Atlanta Hawks fan always says: "Just get me to the closing seconds of the game with a chance to win and the ball in Zaza Pachulia's hands, and I believe we'll get the job done."
That was the situation the Hawks faced late in overtime against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. The Associated Press sets the scene:
Trailing by one with 3.5 seconds left, Atlanta got the ball to Zaza Pachulia at the foul line. He drove the open lane before [Danilo Gallinari] rotated over to disrupt the play, and Pachulia missed a layup off the glass with 2.2 seconds left and Denver grabbed the rebound.
"There wasn't anything wrong with our execution. We ran it just like it was designed," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. "It was the best executed play we ran all night." [...]
"I just missed it," Pachulia said.
The miss sealed the Hawks' fate, handing the Nuggets a hard-fought 118-117 win in an entertaining affair that Nuggets coach George Karl said was "way too offensive minded for me." The loss drops the Hawks a full game behind the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, while the win pulls Denver within a half-game of the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 5 slot out West.
Following the game, Pachulia took to Twitter to apologize to Hawks fans for the miss (thanks to Dime's Ananth Pandian for the head's up):
Had a great opportunity to win the game but blew it up.I'm very disappointed.Hope I'll be in same situation soon and will execute it better.
— Zaza Pachulia (@zaza27) March 14, 2012
Happens to the best of us, big guy. No worries.
Check out a video of the up-close miss — complete with diagramming of the play that Drew, um, drew up — after the jump, thanks to our friends at the delightfully named blog Basketball Things.
The AP recap rightly credits Gallinari for hustling to contest Pachulia's layup; his effort certainly made the attempt more difficult. And make no mistake, it was a last-ditch effort; as Gallinari told Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post, "I don't know why he was wide open, so at the last moment I just jumped at him, because it was the only option I had."
Ultimately, though, Pachulia had the ball in his right hand at the rim with a chance to win the game, and he missed it. As James Goeders writes at the Hawks-focused blog Hoopinion, "Zaza did work on the glass, grabbing 13 rebounds," including five on the offensive boards, "but the missed lay-in at the buzzer was all anyone will remember." Sometimes that's the way life works.
Gallinari, who turned in his best performance since coming back after a monthlong layoff due an ankle injury, looked to have the game won for Denver in regulation. His double-tough fadeaway corner 3-pointer gave the Nuggets the lead with 3.9 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
On the other end, though, Hawks guard Kirk Hinrich was able to quickly gain the paint, get fouled and make the first of his two free throws to knot the game at 105. With 1.1 seconds left on the clock and a chance to win it, though, Hinrich — an 81 percent career free-throw shooter who has struggled from the stripe this season, hitting just 68.2 percent of his attempts — missed the back-end of the freebies, sending the game into overtime.
As Basketball Things blogger Jordan notes, the combination of screens set out of the Hawks' stack alignment put Denver defender Al Harrington in the difficult position of having to "choose between helping on a wide open Joe Johnson or being the last defender between Zaza Pachulia and the basket."
Like most reasonable humans, Harrington likely figured that Johnson — who had already 34 points for the Hawks, including seven straight in overtime before Karl switched his defensive matchups to put Arron Afflalo on Johnson and move Gallinari over to Hinrich — was a better bet to make a game-winner than Pachulia. As it turns out, he was right; there's a reason Zaza ranks in the bottom 10 of at-the-rim finishers among NBA centers. (It's because he's not excellent at finishing at the rim.)
There is one way that this tough road loss can wind up benefiting Atlanta in the long run, though. The next time the Hawks find themselves needing a basket to tie or take the lead late in a game, Zaza should step into the huddle and say, "Make me a decoy." That'll get everyone laughing, loosen up the team and make it easier for the players on the floor to execute their assignments. Total win-win.
Nene led five Nuggets in double figures with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. The Denver center also made the two biggest free throws of the night, putting the Nuggets up 118-117 with 26 seconds to go in overtime and putting the Hawks in the position of needing a Zaza Pachulia game-winner, which is a tough spot to be in. Ty Lawson had another strong outing at the point, pouring in 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go with seven assists, six rebounds and three steals in 35 minutes. Gallinari and Harrington each added 19.
The end-of-regulation miss was Hinrich's only off-target shot from the line, as the guard turned in a sharp performance with 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the floor, including three long-range makes in four tries. Atlanta forward Josh Smith continued his run of form with 33 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, two blocked shots and a steal before fouling out in the extra period.
While Smith has been a frequent subject of trade rumors since reportedly declaring his desire to be moved, Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson told the AP that "the likelihood of us trading Josh at the trade deadline is as close to zero as you can get." Obviously, we expect him to be moved by the time you reach the end of this sentence.