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Hawks squandered some great opportunities

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 11, 2012
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The losses were a mix of bad shots, poor decision-making, and injuries. It was part typical Atlanta Hawks basketball - too much Joe Johnson isolation, for example - and part bad luck.

What had been the best chance for the current Hawks to make a stand in the playoffs and move beyond previous chances ended Thursday night in an 83-80 loss to the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference first round.

“Obviously it’s disappointing that we couldn’t be able to do something special,’’ Josh Smith said. “The road was paved, as good as it’s probably going to ever get for us. But we didn’t take advantage of it. And that’s the frustrating part.’’

The Hawks didn’t convert in crucial moments, whether through a lack of aggressiveness, or the bizarre making of a second foul shot by Al Horford with 2.3 seconds left. Horford missed the first free throw with the Hawks trailing, 81-79. If he tried to miss the second one, the Hawks would have had at least a chance to get the rebound.

It left Atlanta wondering what might have been, had there not been injuries to Horford, Smith and Zaza Pachulia.

“Things happen,’’ Smith said. “The margin of error is so small in the playoffs. Anything can beat you at any given moment. We had opportunities where we could have won games, and we weren’t able to get it done.’’

There were chances with overtime in Game 3 and a lead with less than a minute to play Thursday.

“You’ve got to give Atlanta a lot of credit,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “You really do. Especially tonight. Atlanta is criticized so much about who they are and all that stuff. And they had 10 times tonight where they could’ve went away and said, ‘You know what? We gave it a great effort.’

“And they just kept putting the pressure on us and we had to answer.’’

And in that, there were lessons for a team that doesn’t always get respect around the league.

“We can definitely learn something from that basketball team in that other locker room,’’ Smith said. “The way they play collectively on the defensive end, they really make you think and they really make you work for every point.

“I think that we can definitely take their philosophies and apply it to this basketball team. Because we’re long and athletic, and their philosophies can help this basketball team be one of the top defensive teams in the whole entire league next year.’’

For now, though, it’s too soon for the Hawks to look to next year. There are questions about how the Celtics beat them, about why it happened. The Hawks’ shooting betrayed them, and they didn’t run enough, despite blasting through the Celtics in the first quarter of Game 1.

“We turned the ball over a few times, took some bad shots,’’ said coach Larry Drew. “And in this building a bad shot is just as good as a turnover. If you don’t have proper floor balance, they can run you right out of the gym.’’

Despite the fact the Celtics could have buried the Hawks, they didn’t. Atlanta hung around and still had a chance to win in the end, but they couldn’t ultimately get it done.

“It’s real tough for us,’’ Horford said. “We definitely have the talent, and we felt that this year was going to be a special year for us. So now we just have to see what next year is going to look like with our team.’’

Smith said the series loss will be used for “added fuel’’ in an offseason that will be longer than the Hawks had hoped.

“It definitely hurts, not being able to get out of the first round,’’ Smith said. “Being able to get out of the first round in three consecutive years, then falling short this year. I felt like we had the best opportunity to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year.’’

So why aren’t the Hawks moving on?

“I don’t know,’’ Smith said. “I don’t know what we had to do. We played our hearts out tonight, fell short.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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