CLEVELAND --- They were here --- well, not "here" geographically --- last spring. The Hawks arrived in Boston at a time when Sports Illustrated was bannering the prospect of a Celtics-Lakers final on its cover, and they nearly gummed up the works. Now they're on the shore of Lake Erie for what's being billed as LeBron's Coronation. So they know how difficult it is. "It's tough to steal a series," Mike Woodson said before tipoff Tuesday. "I've seen it done in my 27 years in the NBA, but it's very tough."
The Hawks gave Boston all it could handle --- in Atlanta. The games in TD Banknorth Garden were rather different and never close. The Celtics won by 23, 19, 25 and 34. And this Game 1, sad to say, tracked that regrettable path. The Hawks lost by 27 and didn't lead after the first eight minutes.
True, they hung around for 21/2 quarters, whereupon the MVP left the visitors in his considerable wake. Credit the Hawks for making LeBron James work, but credit the man himself for working in a way no other player in the world can.
On the night David Stern handed James a big trophy, LBJ the MVP scored 34 points in the game's first 36 minutes and made the Hawks realize --- if they hadn't already --- that they're in against bigger and better now. Dwyane Wade is a great player, but he's not LeBron. Miami is a decent team, but it's not LeBron's team.
And once again Joe Johnson's team went off and left Joe Johnson. Or, more precisely, he let it leave without him. He'd scored 27 points in the final three quarters of Game 7 against the Heat, but he took four first-half shots (none the second quarter) and scored four first-half points. "I wasn't trying to force it," he said afterward. "I wanted to let the game come to me. And they did a good job with their defense and double-teams."
Johnson tried to make something happen in the third period, but that's exactly how it seemed: He was trying to do too much after having done too little. He finished with 11 points, 10 shots, six assists, five turnovers.
Josh Smith and Mike Bibby were again very good, but with Al Horford still limping --- his right ankle stiffened in the third quarter ---the Hawks cannot hope to beat Cleveland even once without Joe doing his Joe thing. It will take maximum production to make this a series and, with the exception of Game 7 against Miami, Johnson has spent this postseason doing the minimum.
Is he weary? He worked more regular-season minutes than any NBA player. "I'm tired," Johnson said afterward, "but I'd never use that as an excuse. You play the whole season to get to the playoffs, and now that we're in the second round, we need to act like we want to be here."
We can understand if the Hawks feel they've met their goal by reaching Round 2, but they need to compete in this series for the goodwill flowing from Round 1 to linger into the summer. Game 1 was competitive for a little while, but in the end it wasn't. They'll need to do better in Game 2, or there might not be a Game 5.
"We have to play with a sense of pride," Johnson said. "The second half, we kind of gave up."