ATLANTA — An improbable bucket with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter by Paul Millsap punctuated the Hawks' 111-101 victory over the Wizards in Game 4 of their first-round series.
Millsap grabbed an offensive rebound and immediately lost his balance after contact from Marcin Gortat. He caught the ball in the middle of the paint and ended up outside of the lane, hurling the ball toward the basket as he tumbled to the floor.
"For all the kids out there you gotta practice that play," Millsap said with a wry smile. "It was just a hustle play. I practice fall-away shots. There’s a place for those. I’m trying to work for boards, and I felt the contact, so I threw it up."
The Hawks led 97-93 at the time and the Wizards, behind a standout performance by Bradley Beal (32 points on 11-of-23 shooting), were streaking. Mr. MMA himself Markieff Morris had just scored a bucket to bring the Wizards within four.
On the ensuing possession, Millsap snatched the most important of his nine rebounds, and the putback gave him the biggest bucket of his 19 points, plus the free throw to put Atlanta up by seven. While Millsap tried to downplay the moment, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer credited Millsap's finish as a major key to victory.
"It was a huge play," Budenholzer said. "But that’s also what Paul does, even when he’s not shooting well, he always finds a way. We call those winning plays."
The Hawks got a few more "winning plays" from an unexpected source in Jose Calderon. The veteran backup point guard answered the call when Dennis Schroder went out in the 3:19 left in the first quarter with his third foul. The 35-year-old was tasked with guarding Beal and forced to face John Wall on the other end.
In most situations, that would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, Calderon rose to the occasion. He scored 10 points, added five assists and earned a #PodiumGame.
"I feel comfortable with my teammates," Calderon said. "It’s important to stay ready. We’ve been working hard these days for this kind of game."
Dwight Howard also stepped out after receiving much criticism for his play in the series. Howard was one of seven Hawks in double figures with 16 points. He had managed to score only 18 points in the three previous games combined. His offensive outburst, in addition to his 15 rebounds, was crucial to the Hawks win.
"Obviously it was his best game (of the series)," Budenholzer said. "We needed that extra boost, and he certainly brought it. I thought the defense and his activity on the boards, second and third efforts and all of those things. When he’s like that, it can help carry his teammates and help us take that next step forward."
For the second night in Georgia, the Hawks took the steps needed to win. It’s now tied 2-2 going back to D.C. for Game 5. Other than Beal, the rest of the Wizards, including Wall, struggled from the field. Wall scored 22 points, but he finished minus-one for the game and missed 12 of his 19 shots. He hit double-digit assists but coughed up a series-high six turnovers.
Beal was impressed by Millsap’s big shot, but he put the onus on his team to find ways to finish the comeback.
"It was a good shot," Beal said. "It didn’t sway us one way or the other. When teams go on runs, we don’t get bothered. That’s part of the game. It’s just a matter of how we retaliate. It was just too up and down. Again, we were playing catch-up in the fourth. You spend all your time and energy playing catch-up. It kind of wears on you down the stretch."
If the Wizards hope to regain momentum on Wednesday, they’re going to have to play with better effort and consistency. We’ll see if having the home crowd affects them like it did the Hawks.
"The home crowd was great," Howard said. "They need to do more of that Chick-fil-A promotion on the (missed) free throws. It was so loud in here. That crowd really pushed us. We felt their energy. It was important."
If Millsap and the rest of the Hawks keep making "winning plays," that crowd will have plenty to cheer about.