By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They did it with their best player sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle since Christmas, with a parade of journeymen and supposedly over the hill stars like Elton Brand filling in and playing huge minutes, with the likes of Pero Antic and Mike Scott, Cartier Martin and DeMarre Carroll playing vital roles.
Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, fantastic basically from start to the near finish of this regular season for the now playoff bound Atlanta Hawks, can probably walk around the city without being rushed by fans for autographs. Would you even know Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap if he walked up on you in street clothes?
Perhaps … but probably not.
Reserve guard Lou Williams, in and out of the regular rotation all season, is arguably the most recognizable face on the roster for locals, and that’s mostly because he played his high school ball in the area at South Gwinnett High.
These Hawks are the poster child for the anti-tanking movement, a motley crew if ever there was one, bound for a first round playoff matchup against either the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (the team they beat Saturday to secure their Eastern Conference-best seventh straight postseason trip) or the struggling Indiana Pacers.
Instead of accepting their fate after All-Star center Al Horford saw his season end the day after Christmas due to a torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks survived and advanced to yet another trip to the playoff line.
Williams, who scored 18 of the Hawks’ 29 fourth-quarter points, including the final 12 Atlanta points of the game, admitted that the opponent Saturday night did not matter. The outcome was the sole focus.
“It doesn’t make a difference (who the opponent was),” he said. “That was our second time beating them this year. We gave them an overtime run earlier this year. It’s a team we’ve played well against this season. It was just satisfying to get a win and be in the groove that we’re in.”
As stubborn as they are fearless, Mike Budenholzer‘s Hawks finished the season series with a 2-2 record against the Heat. They had the same mark against the Indiana Pacers, the team they’d face if the playoffs began today. Whoever earns that No. 1 seed will be dealing with a No. 8 seed just crazy enough to believe they can compete with the best.
They could have packed it in and headed for the lottery, like so many others. Their fans wouldn’t have blamed them. The prospect of a higher pick in the lottery and the wistfulness that comes with it make for an easy sell. What could be is always a powerful elixir when you know there is no hope for a championship.
The hard work and dedication it takes to earn a playoff berth, even in a year when the Eastern Conference is historically weak, shows a level of perseverance that the Hawks should be applauded for showing. They knocked the dysfunctional Knicks (and former Hawks coach Mike Woodson) out of the playoff mix, ending Carmelo Anthony‘s personal playoff streak at 10 seasons.
Budenholzer is working with a much different talent base than Woodson did when he started the Hawks’ playoff streak. Horford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia comprised the core group. Hawks boss Danny Ferry hasn’t had the time to build a comparable core group, yet.
They backdoored their way into the No. 8 seed in 2008 and promptly scared the life out of the top-seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics with an epic seven-game series that was as entertaining as it was intense, considering one team finished the regular season 66 wins and the other with 37. (It was arguably the Celtics’ toughest series during their championship run, seeing as how they only saw one more Game 7 — against Cleveland — during their march to the Larry O’Brien trophy.)
“I’m happy that we get to play more games and I get to talk more about improving, and getting better each practice,” Budenholzer said after his team outlasted LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat before a raucous home crowd Saturday night. “We want to build something here. Miami has been in the Finals for three years in a row. There are a lot of teams that have had a lot of success. It takes time to build your habits. (Miami’s) habits are outstanding. We want to continue to build our habits and continue to improve. Our group has really fought hard and competed hard this year. I think they got what they deserved.”
The Hawks got exactly what they earned, which is at least four more games for this bunch to show that sometimes it’s hard to break a habit of winning your way into the playoffs.