ATLANTA (ESPN.com news services) -- The Atlanta Hawks boosted their playoff hopes with a key overtime win Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors. The question now for Atlanta may be whether the Hawks' win will be protested by Toronto.
Atlanta increased its lead for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot to four games over Indiana, which lost 92-77 at Boston.
Toronto is tied for fifth place with Washington and Philadelphia, but Raptors coach Sam Mitchell might file a protest with the NBA after the officials discounted T.J. Ford's basket with no time remaining.
Mitchell argued with referee Mark Wunderlich, who watched the instant replay, that Philips Arena officials started the clock early with just 0.5 seconds remaining.
"We had some opportunities tonight, but things just didn't go our way in the end," Mitchell said. "Sometimes these things happen."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on its Web site on Wednesday night that the Hawks should expect a protest of the result. If a protest does happen, it would be the second of the season involving the Hawks. The Miami Heat protested the finish of a 117-111 overtime loss in Atlanta on Dec. 19.
Ford thought his basket at the end of regulation should've counted. The Hawks were fooled badly on the play, which was designed for Ford to line up at the top of the key and run toward Carlos Delfino and catch an inbounds pass.
Instead, Ford ran easily into the lane and jumped for Delfino's alley-oop pass. The officials originally ruled that Ford banked in his basket as the horn sounded.
"I thought it could go either way," Ford said. "I didn't want to get too excited."
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there was a lengthy discussion in the Raptors' locker room about the clock starting early on Ford's layup attempt. Television replays showed the clock clearly started before Ford caught the ball in mid-air and streched to the basket.
The newspaper reports that official Eric Lewis may be the culprit as he started the clock with a mechanism on his belt. Mitchell said he thought Ford's shot was good and one of the officials ruled it as such, but it was waived off on the replay.
"I thought it was an early [start on the] clock," Mitchell told the newspaper.
A league spokesman told ESPN.com's John Hollinger after the game that referees can't review whether a prematurely started clock caused a shot to come after the buzzer. They can only review whether the shot actually beat the buzzer. That would make any Raptors protest difficult to win since the refs followed the letter of the law in disallowing Ford's shot.
A source told ESPN.com that three referees and the timer have the ability to start the clock, and there is technology to trace who it was in this instance. Normally in similar situations, the trail referee starts the clock, and in this case that was Lewis.
In the Dec. 19 game that Miami protested, the Atlanta stat crew mistakenly ruled then-Heat center Shaquille O'Neal had fouled out in the extra period, when he actually had only five fouls.
The NBA ordered the game to be replayed on March 8. Both teams replayed the last 51.9 seconds of the disputed game, which the Hawks won 114-111 in regulation before a second Heat-Hawks game was played the same night.
In three NBA seasons, Smith has built a reputation on fierce play in the paint.
Smith won't hesitate to shoot jumpers, though, if the Hawks need a big basket.
"I'm not a 3-point shooter," he said, "but if it comes to me, I'll take it."
Smith's 3-pointer from the right side, making it 114-113 with 2:05 left in overtime, gave the Hawks their first lead since Josh Childress hit a pair of free throws with 4:25 left in the second quarter.
Chris Bosh's three-point play put Atlanta back ahead with 1:18 to play, but Bibby followed with a 3 before Josh Childress blocked Ford's jump shot. Smith's 3 from nearly the same spot as his previous attempt made it 122-118.
Bibby forced overtime with a 3-pointer from the left corner, taking Childress' inbound bounce pass from the baseline and faking out Ford.
Not one to show much emotion, Bibby denied that he celebrated with a little dance.
"It was a walk," he said with a smile. "My mom will not like it."
Leading by 17 on Nesterovic's runner with 1:09 left in the third, Toronto had almost nothing go right after Jamario Moon's 18-footer gave it a 105-98 lead with 5:19 remaining.
The Raptors made just one basket in their last nine possessions of regulation -- a 6-foot runner by Ford that gave them a 107-104 lead with 1:32 left.
Toronto was 15-for-20 from the field in the third quarter, led by Anthony Parker's 4-for-4, before everyone but Ford and Bosh went cold.
"When you're on the road playing in a tough environment, you have to execute," Bosh said. "The Hawks have been playing very well, and we knew they would make a run. We did a pretty good job withstanding the run, but everything just didn't fall our way tonight. I wouldn't take anything away from Atlanta. They played hard tonight."
For Smith, who grew up in Atlanta and entered the NBA straight from high school, winning a tight game was just what the playoff-starved Hawks needed.
"We're confident," Smith said. "We feel good about ourselves. We feel like the sky's the limit for this team. We're not taking nights off."
With a 35-40 record, Atlanta matched its highest victory total since 2002-03. ... The Hawks, who haven't made the playoffs since 1999, will put first-round tickets on sale Saturday. ... They beat the Raptors for the first time in five tries. ... Nesterovic's 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter was his first in 11 career regular-season attempts.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
- Mark Wunderlich
- Jack Nies
- Eric Lewis