Monday, April 28, 2008

Warriors, Hawks set precedent for future No. 8s


I didn't play much ball back in the day. Heck, my hooping career peaked in eighth grade when I didn't even know who Red Auerbach was.

But I'll never forget a message my coach -- and now good friend -- Cosey always sent to my teammates and me:

"You can respect your opponent after the game," Cosey said, "but when you're on the court, don't respect them."

Cosey couldn't have been more right. And his words apply to the ongoing NBA playoffs.

In the first two games of No. 8 seed Atlanta's series with the mighty Boston Celtics, the Hawks played the role of the below-.500 regular-season team that couldn't even lace up sneakers on the same court as the 66-16 Celtics. Despite being the more athletic squad, they let the big boys bully them around and basically embarrass them on national T.V.

Of course, no one was surprised by the two lopsided Boston wins. The better team wins most games, right?

Well, yes, but a funny thing happened when the teams flew south to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4. The Hawks stopped being the team that didn't belong and instead stood up to their school's bullies.

Using the energy provided by a boisterous home crowd, Atlanta dominated Game 3 to get back into the series. And they stopped planning the locker-room cleanup scheduled for early this week.

Late in Game 3, rookie Al Horford starting trash-talking at Boston veteran Paul Pierce. Many criticized the move by the unproven player as an episode of a youngster letting the emotion of the moment get to his head.

And that's probably true. But Horford's jawing was actually a good thing for the Hawks. As was the near-head butt by little-known center Zaza Pachulia on Kevin "The Big Ticket" Garnett in Game 4. Pachulia had no business getting in the face of an MVP candidate, right?

Wrong. When a game is being played, all 10 players are equals. A basket by K.G. is worth the same as a jumper by Atlanta's Joe Johnson (and Johnson had several fourth-quarter scores Monday night).

The homecourt atmosphere obviously boosted the young Hawks in knotting up the series at two, but confidence was the biggest reason they're not staring at a 3-1 deficit as the teams prepare to fly north for Game 5.

How else can one explain the Hawks coming back not once, but twice from double-digit leads against the team with the NBA's best regular-season record? Atlanta trailed 16-3 in the first quarter before going on a huge run to lead after the period. But Boston responded in the third quarter to take a 75-65 advantage.

At that point, I figured the Hawks were done. They'd given the Celtics their best punch, but it hadn't been enough. It was time to play their part.

But instead of backing down to Garnett's fierce stares and Ray Allen's pure 3-point stroke, Atlanta -- specifically Johnson -- came out in the fourth quarter as if it was the No. 1 seed, as if its season, and all it had accomplished, was on the line. Johnson attacked Boston's man-to-man defense all quarter, making difficult shot after, well, difficult shot.

Johnson's heroics -- and the little plays by his teammates, such as a tough offensive rebound by Josh Childress -- looked like plays made by a winning team, not a squad that finished eight games below .500. It was a star -- say, Kobe Bryant -- taking over down the stretch and a role player -- say, Derek Fisher -- helping out when the star slipped up for a second or received too much attention.

Is Atlanta going to win this series? No, that is very unlikely. But I'm not ruling it out. We've been here before.

Just last season, Golden State showed how to knock off a No. 1 seed, how to beat the so-called best team in the association. Attack, attack, attack -- and never back down. By the final game of the Warriors' upset of the Mavericks, Dallas was flustered. The Mavs were the ones who were bullied on the playground.

I don't expect the mentally tough Garnett to become the despondent Dirk Nowitzki of a year ago. And I don't think the Hawks match up as well with Boston as Golden State did with Dallas.

But by talking a little smack and getting in the faces of Boston's "Big Three," the Hawks sent a message during the course of three days: We'll respect you after you beat us four times.

Forget Boston's 66 wins compared to Atlanta's 37. Forget Boston's 16 championships to Atlanta's 0. Forget Boston's three past or present All-Stars compared to Atlanta's one.

Right now, all that matters is Boston 2, Atlanta 2.

And if the Hawks play with this mindset, the biggest upset in NBA playoffs history can't be ruled out as the series shifts to Boston.

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