The Hawks were playing Boston when Tree Rollins bit Danny Ainge’s finger (1983) and again when they were outscored 36-6 in the third quarter of an elimination game (1986). They were playing Boston when they had a chance to oust the Celtics and Cliff Levingston hoisted the running lefty hook (1988), Boston yet again when the top-seeded Celtics were taken to a Game 7 by an opponent that wasn’t sure it could win one playoff game (2008).
And now the Hawks are set to meet Boston again. Officially it’s one game, one of 82. Actually it’s much more.
The Hawks are off to another fast start. They’re 6-2. But they were 6-0 last season when they went, inevitably, to Boston and played the champion Celtics off their feet. They led after 47 minutes and 58 seconds. They lost because Paul Pierce hit, as Paul Pierce does, a contested shot while off-balance. The Hawks of 2008-2009 would finish 47-35 and win a playoff series for the first time in 10 years, but never again would they come so close to a significant road victory.
Against teams that finished with a better record, the Hawks were 2-12 on the road last season — and the two victories (over Orlando and New Orleans) came in the season’s first eight days. Even as the Hawks keep advancing, they still haven’t negotiated the essential step: They haven’t managed to wreak the same amount of havoc away from Philips Arena. If the Hawks are to get as good as we — well, I — believe they can be, they must travel better.
Friday night is an opportunity. The Celtics are 8-1 and looking again like the class of the East if not the whole wide league. (Orlando and Cleveland have already lost six games between them.) The Hawks have a chance to catch people’s eye if they do what they haven’t yet managed since they started to get good again — win at TD Banknorth Garden.
Mike Woodson said it a hundred times last season: “Boston taught us how to play playoff basketball.” Now the Hawks need to absorb another lesson: The Celtics (and the Cavs, and the Magic) showed the Hawks how to win on the road by taking games in Philips last season. For the Hawks to challenge the East’s Big Three, they must reciprocate. And this reconfigured team with its beefed-up bench has that capability.
NBA rule of thumb: Role players do disproportionately better work at home than on the road. The Hawks now have a second unit consisting of two guys — Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith — who’ve been more than role players in their time. And Crawford is the biggest single reason these Hawks have a chance to win not just 50 games but maybe 55: He’s a bona fide starter who doesn’t happen to start. Only the best teams have such a man.
After the Hawks surged from 14 points behind to beat the Knicks by 13 Wednesday, Woodson told reporters: “We’ve grown. The last two years we’ve been in some tough games. We’ve won some tough ones and we’ve lost. You know this team hasn’t quit these last two years and it’s a sign of the guys in that locker room. We’re all fighting for something. We’re trying to be better than a year ago.”
They are better than they were a year ago, and far better than in May 2008. These Hawks can win a lot of games. But for their growth to continue, they need to win one somewhere they’re not supposed to win. Because then we’d be able to say: “Know what? Maybe they are supposed to win.”