Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A loss that says a lot about the Hawks


Typically, I'm not a proponent of writing about NBA teams and their fortunes in November. Or December or January, for that matter.

The season is too long, beginning in mid-fall and lasting until the beginning of summer. Entire buildings are constructed, entire pregnancies are survived, the world is sailed around during NBA seasons.

So, obviously, a lot can change during the course of the 82-game regular-season grind, followed by the protracted, made-for-TV playoffs. But, just two weeks into the 2008-09 season, I've got some bold predictions for you:

1. The Atlanta Hawks will make a strong run at winning the Southeast Division, battling the Orlando Magic to the end. Heck, scratch that last statement (I'm feeling really bold). And forget what my recent NBA preview said:

The Hawks will win the Southeast. Yep, you heard it here first.

2. The Atlanta Hawks will not be a "sleeper" in the playoffs. Rather, they'll be a contender. They will likely win one series and maybe two. And don't discount them when putting together your list of teams that can make a run at the defending-champion Boston Celtics.

Why am I writing this manifesto, here on Nov. 13, when half of America doesn't even know basketball season is underway? Well, let's just say the Hawks have made a stronger-than-Whiskey statement with their first seven games, including the only one they lost.

That happened last night, when they visited the last venue in which they lost a game with any meaning. Back on May 4, a Sunday afternoon, Atlanta traveled to Boston for a grand opportunity: a chance to knock off the heavily favored Celtics in Game 7 of the first round and advance in the playoffs.

It laid an egg, playing like the young team it was — immature, impatient, unfocused.

The Hawks were great at home during the series, winning all three games in HotLanta, making basketball relevant in the city for the first time since Dominique Wilkins routinely threw down thunderous putback dunks. But when it came to winning on Boston's home court, it was clear that the team still had to grow up, still had to find that steely focus that championship contenders maintain regardless of their next game's venue.

Well, I have no idea what most members of the Hawks did this summer — although I read an article that said Marvin Williams came back to Chapel Hill to work toward his degree, which shows his tremendous dedication, considering he spent just a single year playing for the Tar Heels. But whatever the players did, the came to training camp this fall a much-improved team both physically and mentally.

A lot was made of Josh Childress' departure for the great fortunes of basketball in Greece. Pundits thought the loss of their consistent sixth man would greatly hurt the Hawks. That hasn't been close to the case. Ronald "Flip" Murray and Maurice Evans have filled in admirable (although they're a fantasy owner's nightmare because they basically exchange having good games).

And the starting lineup has been one of basketball's best, as it showed in Boston Wednesday night. In the best game of the young season, the Hawks battled the Celtics down to the final seconds.

Williams, not known for his outside shooting, knocked down a 3-pointer — after the team's leading scorer, Joe Johnson, was double-teamed while driving down the baseline — and the Hawks took a one-point lead with 7 seconds remaining.

Of course the Celtics being the Celtics, Paul Pierce came back to make a difficult fadeaway jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining, giving Boston a thrilling 103-102 victory and ending Atlanta's perfect season.

But at 6-1, the Hawks have to be just as excited as Boston's fans were after watching their Celtics improve to 8-1. In two-weeks time, they have shown the NBA world that they definitely weren't a one-year fluke and that they definitely have the nucleus to maintain this type of play throughout the season.

At this point, I'd still rate Boston, Cleveland and Detroit — in that order — as the East's top trio of teams. But after them, it's a crap shoot. Philly has been disappointing this far, the Magic still don't play much defense and the Raptors are solid, but I still don't see championship potential there.

I'd make Atlanta my fourth-best team in the East right now. After making such a statement, I guess I owe you a few reasons:

1. In case you haven't noticed, Johnson is one of the NBA's best scorers. There's no doubt about it. Every night he's the focus of the opponent's defense, and every night he finds ways to score. He's a great shooter, he's a strong slasher, and he showed his passing ability by finding Williams for the go-ahead 3-pointer. He's a great lead-by-example guy.

2. Mike Bibby is the veteran presence the team needs. He's been through the playoff battles before (with Sacramento) and knows what it takes to win games like Wednesday's. And he plays the most important position, so when things start to slip, he can quickly get everyone back on track.

3. Al Horford will only get better. In just his second season, the Hawks' center is showing his potential. Just Tuesday, he scored 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. With Horford on my fantasy team, I was about to plan a party until I realized I was still losing. But in all seriousness, Horford has quickly proven that he's a legitimate starting center. And as we saw against Boston last season, he doesn't back down from anybody.

So there you go. Three reasons I'm not calling the fast start a fluke. Atlanta has the dogs to keep winning. Not at this pace, no, but at a good enough clip to win its division and get homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason.

As it showed during this trip to Boston, basically the same group of players from last spring is now just as talented, just as hungry for success, more focused and certainly not intimidated by any opponent or any arena.

And that, to me, is enough to write such a glowing NBA column before even watching a full NBA game.

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