About 24 hours after they glided out of Miami following an uplifting victory Hawks players sat dejectedly at their lockers in Chicago, stung by a deflating defeat.
Looking to provide convincing proof they are an Eastern Conference power, the Hawks managed only a mixed message. The high of winning impressively at defending Eastern Conference champion Miami was followed by the low of fading late at East runner-up Chicago after leading by 19 points.
With Miami in town Thursday for a rematch, fans will show up at Philips Arena and a national TV audience will tune in to see if the Hawks can provide further evidence they are for real.
After playing at Charlotte on Friday, the Hawks get another shot at Chicago on Saturday at Philips Arena.
The Hawks vowed to shake off the tough loss and continue to make their case over the next three nights.
“We know we can play with the best of the best,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said after the 76-74 loss at Chicago. “Obviously this was a disappointing loss, but we can’t hang our heads. We have to know we can play anybody. These are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference last year.”
The Hawks beat one of them with a focused defensive effort. They were even better against the Bulls, who scored only 42 points through three quarters.
But then the Hawks faltered in the fourth quarter. As their offense stagnated and their defense scrambled to slow Derrick Rose, they heard the roar of a crowd that had booed Chicago’s effort just minutes earlier.
Within the same game, the Hawks showed that they can be both dominant and shaky. That’s why coach Larry Drew cautioned he needed to see more from his team after Monday’s 100-92 victory at Miami.
“Until we can bring that type of effort on a consistent basis, you’ll see two different ballclubs,” Drew said. “We have to become a more consistent ballclub. We’re still trying to find ourselves as a ballclub, and we’re just trying to get better.”
Certainly what happened to the Hawks at Chicago couldn’t be attributed only to their miscues. Bulls guard Rose, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, asserted himself as the best player on the floor over the final 12-plus minutes.
Rose suddenly started sinking pull-up 3-pointers. When the Hawks reacted to that threat, he zipped to the basket and scored or drew a whistle nearly every time.
In the final minute Rose got to the basket and was met by Smith, a 6-foot-9 leaper. Smith raised both of his long arms to protect the rim, but Rose twisted his body and scored for Chicago’s first lead of the game.
“His quickness alone is scary,” Smith said, “and his athleticism is impressive.”
The Hawks still might have won if they made more free throws. They missed 11 of 25, including two misses by Jeff Teague and one by Al Horford over the final 17.5 seconds.
“We weren’t knocking them down like we should,” Horford said. “Other than that, I felt like we played a great game. We were right there with them. We dominated them for most of the game. Just Derrick Rose happened.”
Fatigue might have played a factor in the fade. The Hawks were playing their sixth game in eight days. By the end of the week, they will have played nine games in 12 days, the most for any team in the league to start the season.
Two games each against Miami and Chicago make that slate even tougher. Drew acknowledged mental fatigue could set in, but told his team that it can’t be used as an excuse.
The Hawks have to fight through it if they want to prove what they did at Miami is a better gauge of their standing than what they couldn’t do at Chicago.
“We are going to see these teams later this week, both of them,” Horford said. “It’s all about learning. This time it’s going to be at home, which I think will be better for us.”