The last time the Hawks won a playoff series was 10 years ago. We could not have known then that it was a signal for impending doom.
A first-round win over Detroit was followed by four straight losses to New York, which was followed by management’s decision to go in a new direction, which was followed by presumed dementia by general manager Pete Babcock, because that’s the only possible explanation for his next decision — trading Steve Smith for Isaiah Rider and a giant flushing sound to be named later.
Welcome to recovery.
The Hawks open the playoffs Sunday night against Miami. They are the better team. They have the home-court advantage. They should win. If they don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean the franchise will circle the drain for the next several years. But what will the last six months have meant?
For a guy whose maturity has sometimes come into question, Smith shows remarkable perspective.
The Hawks won 47 games this season, their most since 1998. They held onto the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference for the last three months of the season, illustrating an improving and maturing roster and possibly an improving and maturing coach, Mike Woodson.
But this isn’t a year ago. When an eighth seed takes the league’s best team to seven games in a playoff series before losing, as the Hawks did with Boston, satisfaction comes easy. Expectations are higher now.
Win this series, and the regular season is validated.
Lose this series, and feel free to flush.
This is when Joe Johnson needs to show he can make a difference in the postseason. This is when Mike Bibby needs to make his case for being re-signed.
This certainly is when Woodson needs to show that improving win totals in each of the past four seasons is not an aberration, because the man was given only a two-year contract this season, an indication his future may be on the line.
There’s a significant difference in ripple effects between the Hawks winning four games and losing four games — way beyond this postseason. Winning reaffirms that the plan doesn’t have to change. Losing mandates change.
“I feel like a lot of people didn’t even expect us to make the playoffs this year, so in that sense it was a really good season,” Al Horford said. “But at the end of the day, a team gets judged by their playoff performance. This is when great teams are made.”
Miami is not a great team. But it has the only player in the series (Dwyane Wade) who can take over a game. It has the only x-factor. If you’re wondering why some are struggling to pick a winner in this series, there it is.
Well, that and the Hawks’ relative lack of a postseason resume.
“Probably some people won’t believe we can win in the playoffs until we actually do,” Smith said.
“I don’t want to be one of those players who, seven or eight years down the line, is someone who still hasn’t made it past the first round. I don’t want to have to live with that.”
There’s an easy solution.
Jeff Schultz can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, Tweeter (SchultzAJC) or carrier pigeon (make a right off 400).