ATLANTA — With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Washington forward Drew Gooden hit a baseline jumper to put the Wizards and Hawks in a 73-73 deadlock. It marked the sixth time in eight postseason games that Atlanta had blown a double-digit lead, and the once-jovial Philips Arena crowd let out a collective groan.
“Here we go again.”
On the ensuing play, however, Dennis Schroder drove to the rim on a pick-and-roll and kicked the ball out to the left corner to an open Kent Bazemore. Usually a reluctant shooter, Bazemore confidently — if not unexpectedly — set his feet and released the high-arcing shot. Swish. It was his second 3-pointer of the quarter and it gave the Hawks a 76-73 lead they would not relinquish.
“Those shots were great (for my confidence),” Bazemore said after the Hawks notched a 106-90 victory that evened their Eastern Conference semifinals at one game apiece. “I think I was one for a million before then.”
Bazemore gives credit to his teammates for keeping him confident and prepared to shoot through his slump.
“It comes with it; my coaches and teammates tell me to stay up and keep shooting,” he said. “The same shots I hit tonight are the same ones I’ve taken every other night. It’s just good to see them go in.”
Bazemore led Atlanta’s bench in scoring with 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting and added an emphatic block on the defensive end to pump up the crowd.
Bazemore wasn’t alone off the bench: Schroder scored nine points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists in just 15 minutes. Pero Antic, meanwhile, hit two timely 3-pointers of his own to ignite the crowd.
“I thought our bench really helped us tonight,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Several guys came in and played well, that was big. They’ve been doing it for us all year. It really makes a big difference for our starting group for those guys to come in and make big shots and make some big defensive plays as well.”
Budenholzer noted that Schroder is starting to understand how to pick and choose his spots better when trying to spark the offense without turning the ball over — a sentiment Schroder echoed in the postgame.
“I just try to concentrate on doing the right things,” Schroder told Sheridan Hoops. “Every possession counts and I’m just trying to be solid every time to do the right things.”
In losing Game 1, the Hawks’ bench scored just 18 points on 20 shots. In Game 2, however, the bench turned things around, scoring 27 points on 15 attempts.
“It’s big to have those guys come in and hit some shots for us,” Kyle Korver told Sheridan Hoops. “I think in the playoffs, having great performances from guys– the Spurs talk about this a lot: unexpected contributions from someone really help in playoff games and in a series. We were fortunate we had three guys play super great off the bench tonight and hit some shots. We needed that.”
“That’s been our motto all year,” echoed Bazemore. “Everyone matters. Everyone stepped up tonight. Pero. Dennis. I had a shot fall and it was great. It was a good collective effort getting back to our brand of basketball playing 12-13 deep. You never know who it’s going to be with us.”
Playing without injured All-Star guard John Wall, the Wizards seemed to lack the depth to compete.
Although Wall’s replacement, Ramon Sessions, had a stellar spot-start performance in his own right with 21 points, the Wizards just didn’t have enough ammo to keep up with the Hawks. Washington had just five players score more than five points and just 22 bench points, nearly all coming from Otto Porter.
To embellish the apparent lack of depth, even one of Washington’s starters has stopped producing entirely this series: Nene – somewhat marginalized by Atlanta’s smaller lineups – has two points in 44 minutes through the first two games.
“We came up short,” Sessions said after the game. “They got to the line a lot. Just on the defensive end, we’ve got to get back and get our defense set and make them play in the half court as best we can. Atlanta played well, but we got to get ready for our game on Saturday.”
The Hawks made 22 of 25 free throws to break out of a playoff-long malaise from the charity stripe. The Wizards, meanwhile, got to the line just 14 times and made only eight.
“Part of being aggressive and part of attacking is getting to the free throw line, so I think that really helped us tonight,” said Budenholzer. “It’s something that we’ve emphasized all year on both ends. It’s important for us to play without fouling.”
DeMarre Carroll was happy with his team’s defensive intensity in the fourth quarter and was relieved to leave Atlanta with the series tied:
“We knew this was a game we had to win,” said Carroll. “We didn’t want to go down 0-2. It was kind of a funky game. We realized at the last minute that John Wall was going to be out. I think it was a big win for us.”
Korver, meanwhile, looks forward to a few days off and believes his team will benefit from some rest after starting this series abruptly after finishing off Brooklyn last Friday night, then playing Game 1 early Sunday afternoon.
“We just came out of a physical series and we had like a 20-minute break before the start of this series,” Korver chided. “For some of us, maybe our legs aren’t quite there. Now we have a couple of days to not just rest but maybe do proactive things like getting a lift in or getting some practice shots up.”
Jacob Eisenberg is a college senior at Emory University and works as an NBA columnist for Sheridan Hoops, specializing in analytics-based scouting reports for individual players. Follow him on Twitter and check out his website.