If it felt like the first game of an NBA Finals, it’s because statistically this is about as obvious as NBA Finals previews pitched in the regular season tend to come. No two NBA teams in league history have met this late in the regular season with single-digit loss totals to their credit, as the West-leading Golden State Warriors and East-dominating Atlanta Hawks put on a Friday night show that deserved exposure that went far beyond the local viewers that were tuning in, and the League Pass-flaunting NBA obsessives who stayed home to tune in on what could have been a night out.
Atlanta downed Golden State by a 124-116 score that perfectly summed up the back and forth. The Warriors, working on the road, were game in their competitive spirit but unable to close the gap, while the Hawks paired precision and timely defense (despite those 116 points from GSW) on their way to an impressive win. The fact that both teams emerged from this contest still boasting single-digit losses on the season, in the first week of February no less, tells you all you need to know about the potency of these two squads.
Atlanta took advantage of a rather whistle-free first half to its benefit to keep up with a footloose-but-at-times-feckless Warriors group before halftime. The Hawks shot just 35 percent in the first quarter, but hung around by playing stellar defense on all manner of penetrating Warriors – Golden State was clearly not happy with the series of non-calls as its scorers worked their way to the hoop, but the refereeing crew was at least consistent in its approach. As a result, the Warriors didn’t shoot their first free throw until Klay Thompson was fouled on a drive with one-tenth of a second left to go in the first half.
It was a 23-10 run spread out over the final minutes of that first half and the first chunks of the second that allowed the Hawks to work their way to a 70-60 lead, a lead sprung with the starters doing battle in the third quarter. The Hawks’ bench depth, long-questioned and seemingly on edge with swingman Thabo Sefolosha out for a spell, then rose to the occasion to put Golden State away.
Brimming with confidence, working mostly off of broken plays or improvisational forays once Golden State’s league-leading defense helped chase the ball away from Atlanta’s typical scorers, unheralded Hawks reserves managed to score both inside and out with alacrity and gusto. Kent Bazemore, a former Warrior, initially led the charge and finished with 11 points on 3-of-3 3-point shooting. In the second half, reserve forward Mike Scott also nailed all three of his attempts from long range alongside a pair of other slithery makes and a 4-of-4 mark from the line to finish his night with 17 points. Second-year guard Dennis Schroeder, after struggling to run the show in the first half, turned things around as ATL went with a small lineup in the second half – ending the contest with nine points and seven assists.
Meanwhile, despite those 116 points, the Warriors just could not find a rhythm.
Shots from both long and short range spun in and out. Golden State didn’t revert to its early season ways with a rash of turnovers, but Atlanta was able to pluck a series of embarrassing backcourt steals on the team’s way toward forcing 14 Golden State miscues. Warriors forward Draymond Green demolished his season high with 20 rebounds (with six assists) on the night, but he also needed 14 shots to score 12 points and was routinely caught lunging at pump fakes defensively.
The Warriors' MVP candidate, guard Stephen Curry, turned in a fantastic line with 26 points on 8-of-19 shooting with nine assists to just one turnover, adding two steals and two blocks along the way. He also missed seven of his first eight shots, hit one 3-pointer on a lucky bounce and another on an unanticipated bank shot. The production was fine, but it just wasn’t his night.
It’s that sort of nitpicking that could possibly belie just how great a contest this was. Atlanta didn’t win handily at home, but impressed with its mettle, defensive scheming, plus the unending depth and execution on both ends. Golden State will no doubt shake its head at all the chances gone wrong – the lack of communication prior to turnovers, the great looks that spun in and out – before moving on to the team’s next game on the its mini-road trip.
It wasn’t a classic nail-biter, but it was a performance worthy of two teams that entered the night on pace to win 69 (Golden State) and 68 (Atlanta) games on the season. The two will match up again in Golden State in mid-March in their final regular-season pairing of 2014-15, once again away from the national TV cameras and glare of the klieg lights.
That’s just fine, as us League Pass-types will cherish our little secret. All we could ask for is seven more matchups between the two squads, come June.
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