The Hawks are 12 quarters into the deep end of the NBA playoff pool and are still flailing for some of the resolve that has become their trademark under Mike Woodson. Throughout the improvement seen in Woodson's five-year tenure with the Hawks , his team has developed ways to defy the odds, winning when it seemed impossible and surviving when it appeared implausible.
Yet here they stand, their season on the brink of being finished off by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been pretty impossible themselves.
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals tonight at Philips Arena is perhaps their last chance to make a little noise against the Cavaliers, who own a 3-0 lead in the series and can send the Hawks off to summer vacation with a win.
"Only the strong survive. I truly believe that in playoff Basketball," Woodson said Sunday, his weary eyes betraying his bravado the morning after a backbreaking 15-point Game 3 loss. "Right now, we've been hit. I like the way we played [in Game 3], though. We didn't quit. We kept playing. And a great team beat us.
"Do we throw in the towel for Game 4? Hell, no, we shouldn't do that. I'm going to push our guys to make sure they don't throw in the towel. Because if we force another game ... anything can happen."
Sounds like a plan.
The only problem is the Cavaliers have shown no signs of letting up. The Hawks came at them with everything they had in Game 3, using inspired performances from injured starters Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Marvin Williams.
James wasn't moved. He waxed the Hawks for 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists as the Cavaliers won their record seventh straight playoff game by double digits.
"I don't know what we've got left," Johnson said as he walked to his car after practice. "Hopefully, we'll play with a little fire and not let them close it out on our home court. But I don't know."
Johnson's uncertainty stems from the Hawks' inability to sustain anything close to their customary level of play for more than a few minutes against the Cavaliers.
In the first round, the Hawks found ways to counteract whatever the Miami Heat threw at them in the first round, making all the necessary adjustments in rebounding from a 2-1 deficit to win the series with a blowout in Game 7.
Against the Cavaliers, however, there has been no recourse.
"In this series we just haven't made the adjustments," Woodson said. "And you can blame it on the coach. I'll take the Heat for that. I think a lot of time it comes down to who wants it the most. And right now they're beating us to the punch on pretty much everything that they want to do and what we want to do."
The Hawks succeeded in keeping it a tight game, the first one the Cavaliers have been in this postseason, until late in the third quarter of Game 3, when the bottom quickly dropped out.
Zaza Pachulia lost his cool, picked up two technical fouls and was ejected with 1:33 to play. Cleveland soon was off on a 10-2 run, a one-point game was soon another lopsided affair and the Hawks , hobbled by injuries and their collective composure gone, were left to wonder where it all went wrong.
"Injuries have bogged us down," Johnson said. "But we can't blame it on that. You still have to come out, night in and night out, and play with a sense of urgency and be a professional. I'll say it again --- there's no way possible they are 20 or 30 points better than us. But you have to give it up to them, they're a great team."
Game 4: Cavaliers at Hawks , 7 p.m. today (TNT, 790 AM)