FIZZLING HAWKS OFFENSE LACKS ITS CUSTOMARY POP

They are a like a Fourth of July sparkler down to its final seconds of flame. Where are the Atlanta Hawks now? Where is the team that stepped on everybody in the final month of the regular season? Where is the slam-jam, the midair excellence of Dominique Wilkins, the mile-a-minute breaks that left opponents with their mouths open?

“This is not the best basketball your team can play, right?” someone asked forward Kevin Willis after the Hawks dropped their second game of the weekend to the Pistons, 89-88, and fell behind, three games to one, in this best-of-seven playoff series. “What we saw up here? You’ve got to be frustrated with that, right?”

“Well, I thought we played great today,” he said. “Both teams played great.”

“Great”?

“Good. . . . Both teams played good.”

“Good”?

“We played pretty good.”

Keep going, Kevin. When you get down to “tight,” let us know. These were the “explosive” Hawks? The guys in the red and gold uniforms who scored 99 and 88 points their last two games, shot a combined 44 percent, and left nobody with their mouths open except those yawning in the first half of Sunday’s squeeze of a contest?

Nuh-uh. The Pistons may have been only one point less tight than the Hawks Sunday, but at least they got some magic when they needed it. Isiah Thomas sank the last miracle of both the third and fourth quarters, the former a buzzer-beating, 45-foot heave, the latter a baseline toss that sent the crowd into hysterics and the Pistons to within one win of where no Detroit team has ever gone before — the NBA conference final.

And Atlanta? The team that made people shiver, shake, and say things like: “Look out, these guys are awesome. Watch. They’ll beat Boston”?

Yeah. Well. Maybe at a celebrity golf tournament somewhere. Right now, if the Hawks don’t do everything right for three straight games, they can go home and watch the Celtics on the cable TV station that pays their salaries.

Played great? Did he really say played great?

“Well . . . decently,” said Willis.

Atlanta’s fire smoldering

Remember, this is an Atlanta team that finished the regular season with a 24-3 brushfire, won the Central Division going away, challenged Boston for the the best record in the East, and had TV producers setting all their countless rebounds and slam dunks to specially produced disco music. So sure were the Hawks of their impending good fortune that they began to talk about the Celtics before they had taken care of Indiana.

And Sunday, after Wilkins — who is clearly hurting from a bruised left calf — shot seven-for-23, and Willis, the glass man, got just seven rebounds, and John Battle, a reserve guard, was their co-high scorer with 19 points — after all that, they mostly acted as if nothing was wrong.

Which is usually a sign that something is.

“This sounds simple,” said Hawks coach Mike Fratello, whose weaknesses are showing more and more as this series goes on. “But if we made our shots, it’s a different ball game.”

You’re right. That’s simple.

Here are some facts to go with all this smoke. Wilkins has been mortal these past two games; his spinning moves are gone to the injury; his intimidating dunks have been too few to matter. Doc Rivers, the point guard, is suffering from Isiah Thomas disease, and the fever has sapped his confidence and his scoring touch. Willis has been nicely handled by Ricky Mahorn — who is going to punch the guy in the jaw one of these games, you just know it — and the Hawks, way over .500 during the season, are 4-4 in the playoffs.

“Game 2 back home (a 115-102 victory) was the only game where you’ve really seen the Atlanta Hawks,” said Wilkins.

Hey. What do you know? A slice of honesty. Pistons have the edge

Fittingly, it was the Pistons who had a better explanation for Atlanta’s struggles Sunday.

“We’re both playing great defensively,” said Thomas. “When teams do that in the playoffs, there are no easy baskets, no transition baskets, everything you get you have to fight for. And the team that fights the hardest is the team that wins.”

On Sunday, neither team was excellent. But Detroit could count on its ace, and the Hawks could not. Battle — not Wilkins — wound up with their last two scoring chances and he blew both.

Suffice it to say the Hawks have reasons for their struggles, even if they won’t admit them. And so far the Pistons have had the edge it takes to win — the same edge everyone was giving Atlanta before this series began.

“This team really isn’t playing up to its potential right now, is it?” Fratello was asked.

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said curtly.

How’s this, Mike? One more and you’re out.

Have fun.

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