The last meaningful Atlanta Hawks highlight in this second-round series came out of the chaotic closing moments of Game 1, out of a relentless Sixers’ trap that nearly led to a steal and a breakaway dunk for Ben Simmons but instead left a sliver of space for Bogdan Bogdanovic on the left wing. Five seconds left on the shot clock, 43.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, his team up three and desperate to hang on, Bogdanovic did more than make a clutch three-pointer with Seth Curry’s flailing hands in his face to contest the shot. He backpedaled down the court, holding his right index finger to his lips to hush the Wells Fargo Center, to send a message to the Sixers and their fans that they should bury any thoughts of sweeping Atlanta and coasting into the conference finals.
The subsequent two games have been one-sided Sixers victories, but with the structural integrity of Joel Embiid’s right knee compromised, with Danny Green out because of a calf strain, the Sixers still have some work to do to finish off the Hawks. And for all the concern about Trae Young’s ungodly shooting range and his playmaking skills and his potential to become the latest Philly sports villain, Doc Rivers, Simmons, and Matisse Thybulle have generally held him down since the first half of Game 1.
No, it’s Bogdanovic who has delivered the only silencing shot of the series for the Hawks. Who scored Atlanta’s first seven points Friday night in Game 3, keeping his team close before the Sixers raced away to a 127-111 win. Who, in averaging 18 points a game in this series, has emerged as the wild card who could still scare the Sixers, the Atlanta player least likely to back down.
The essence of Bogie
Bogdanovic, who turns 29 in August, had been a restricted free agent with the Sacramento Kings last year when a sign-and-trade agreement to send him to the Milwaukee Bucks collapsed. The Hawks then signed him in November to a four-year, $72-million contract, figuring that they were getting a veteran shooter to come off the bench, spread the floor, and complement Young. Instead, he started 27 of his 44 regular-season games, scoring 16.4 points a game, shooting 44% from three-point range and 91% from the foul line.
“I think what I’m more surprised or impressed with is his ability to play in the pick-and-roll and make decisions with the basketball,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We’re really happy with what he has done for us.”
More, he has provided a measure of toughness to a team whose bread-and-butter offensive plan often boils down to the wispy Young pump-faking, drawing contact from a defender, and flinging himself to the floor. When Bogdanovic, during the Hawks’ five-game first-round victory over the Knicks, didn’t flinch after Julius Randle socked him in the face with a cheap-shot punch, Hawks play-by-play voice Bob Rathbun sent a video of the incident to his friend Fran Fraschilla, formerly the head coach at Manhattan College, St. John’s, and New Mexico, now a college and international basketball analyst for ESPN.
“They’d be wheeling Paul Pierce out on a wheelchair, and LeBron would have gone down, and Julius would have gotten a flagrant 2 and been ejected,” Fraschilla said in a phone interview. “Bogie doesn’t even react. It’s like when Matt Barnes faked throwing the ball at Kobe. It’s the essence of Bogie.”
Fraschilla coached Bogdanovic at the 2008 Adidas Eurocamp, back when Bogdanovic was a 16-year-old kid steeped in Serbia’s basketball culture and just two years away from signing his first professional contract, with a team in Belgrade, his home city. He had two full seasons in the EuroLeague under his belt when the Phoenix Suns selected him in the first round of the 2014 draft, and he had added two more, for the Turkish team Fenerbahçe, by the time the Kings targeted him for a trade at the 2016 draft.
Vlade Divac, Sacramento’s general manager then, already was well familiar with Bogdanovic’s game and background. But in the Kings’ war room before and during that draft, when it came time to pull the trigger on a five-player deal to get Bogdanovic, another source offered a powerful endorsement of him: Nancy Lieberman, the Naismith Hall of Famer, who was a Kings assistant coach at the time.
“People don’t just know, but he is a very efficient offensive player,” Lieberman said by phone. “Obviously, where he is now, he’s bigger, he’s stronger, and he’s a better defensive player than people think. He’s pretty big. He’s a 6-6 wing, and he has the ability to put defenders on his back and navigate his way to the basket. He has an elite offensive engine. He reminds me a little bit of Trae. You don’t have to beg him to play hard. He’s always a legit weapon.”
‘Every game is life and death’
He has been one against the Sixers, especially in Game 1, when he drilled that late three and silenced that fevered arena.
“I almost [stuck] the finger in my nose, because my nose is big,” he said. “It’s basketball. You’re on the road. The crowd is loud, but I was just in the moment. I didn’t try to disrespect nobody. They know that.”
That one shot won’t be nearly enough to tilt this series in the Hawks’ favor, not against a superior Sixers team, not as long as Embiid stays in the lineup. But if Bogdanovic does happen to do it again, no one should be surprised.
“He did that a hundred times in his career in Europe,” Fraschilla said. “These are the best players in the world over here, but when you play 82 games, not every game means the same. In the EuroLeague, people who have played and coached there will tell you: Nearly every game is life and death. So there are a lot of pressure games during the season, and he’s played in a hundred of them. What’s been remarkable about his career is that as he got older, the pressure of big shots became part of his DNA. It’s not to say he’s an NBA star, because he’s not, but he’s a really good piece on a really nice NBA postseason story. He’s not going to be intimidated.”