Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer didn't officially throw in the towel with seven minutes remaining in Game 3 and Atlanta trailing by 18 points. He also didn't have his primary players on the court. The Wizards dominated the top seed to that point for a 94-76 advantage. There was no sense the final minutes would prove different.
"We didn't play well," the coach conceded. "You never know what's going to happen, but most likely you feel like you're not going to be able to close that gap."
Of course, that's exactly what the Hawks did. Using a lineup loaded with reserves, - "They went kind of radical there at the end," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said -, Atlanta scored the next 17 points.
They erased the entire deficit on forward Mike Mucala's 3-pointer with 14.8 seconds remaining.
They eventually lost when Paul Pierce did what Paul Pierce does: Make clutch shots. Pierce drained a game-winning step back jumper at the buzzer to give the Wizards a thrilling 103-101 win and a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series on Saturday night.
The Hawks fell on the final Truth bomb, but they were run out of the gym for most of the game.
"None of us in our locker room feel great about the way we competed for the first three quarters," the NBA's Coach of the Year said. "It was not inspirational."
It's what happened over the final minutes that Atlanta hopes becomes its true takeaway. The Hawks outscored the Wizards 35-18 and forced five turnovers including multiple 24-second shot clock violations in the fourth quarter.
“I think we just competed as a team, I think the second unit did an amazing job of competing, running back and getting rebounds, and we just competed," said Dennis Schroder, who scored all 18 of his points after halftime.
Kyle Korver was the lone Atlanta starter on the court late in the game. One of the league's elite 3-point shooters, he missed both of his deep attempts in the final period.
“That was an interesting playoff game," said Korver, who didn't score after the first quarter. "The bottom line is they had their way with us for three quarters. They were more physical, and just kind of pushed us around and we didn’t respond well.
"The guys that came in for us in the fourth quarter gave us a huge lift and that was a great thing to see, but overall we got to play with more fire.”
The debate Budenholzer will have with himself in the hours after the loss and leading into Monday's Game 4 is this: Did the Hawks find a formula in the final minutes or show their true colors over the opening three quarters?
"I think to have a visual of what it takes is always a positive, but i think the feeling that was there the majority of the game is important too," he said. "I don't know which is stronger or more important. They're both real."