Before Monday’s game, someone mentioned to Mike Woodson that his team, wonder of wonders, had just ascended to the top of Marc Stein’s NBA power ratings on ESPN.com.
In case you missed that, let me repeat it: The Atlanta Hawks are, at least for this week, regarded as the finest basketball team in the best league in the world. The … Atlanta … Hawks.
“That’s pretty nice,” said Woodson, smiling as he spoke. And Woodson, as you know, is frugal with his smiles. But think about where this franchise and this coach have been, and where they are now: From 13-69 in 2004-2005 to No. 1 after Week 3 in November 2009. (And not just according to ESPN. The power ratings by John Schuhmann of NBA.com likewise have the Hawks at the top. Can the BCS be far behind?)
“I didn’t know that,” said Josh Smith after being informed of his team’s new lofty perch.
“It’s just Week 2, though,” counseled Randolph Morris, who was seated alongside. (Actually, it’s Week 3. But close enough.) “We want to be there at Week 50.”
Which would be shortly after Halloween 2010, which I don’t believe is what Morris meant. Still, you get the drift. It’s a long season, et cetera. But you know what? These Hawks might be No. 1 for a while yet.
After three-plus quarters Monday night, it looked as if that ranking wouldn’t last 24 hours, let alone 50 weeks. The Hawks trailed the Trail Blazers by 10 points with eight minutes left. But the home team steadied itself and nearly won in regulation — Rudy Fernandez hit an outrageous tying trey over Al Horford at the horn — but did win in overtime.
And now this club is 9-2 having handled a good Portland team twice and having won in Boston and having blown out Denver here. That’s a flying start by any measure, and it shouldn’t be considered an aberration. This team is good, folks. This team is really deep, really gifted, really good.
“It’s kind of nice to sit at the top of the division,” said Woodson, speaking of an NBA South that also includes Orlando, Miami and Washington. “There’s nothing wrong with winning your division.”
Could that happen? Sure it could. The smart money will still ride with the Magic, but the smart money wouldn’t have had the Hawks at 9-2 having played six road games. The smart money wouldn’t have been on the home team with eight minutes left Monday night, but the Hawks wore down the Blazers and outclassed them in the end. (Joe Johnson owned Brandon Roy, FYI.)
And to those who keep saying the Hawks must have a big man to do anything of substance: Portland has LaMarcus Aldridge, the fourth player drafted in 2006, and Greg Oden, the first player drafted in 2007, at power forward and center. Aldridge and Oden combined for 29 points and 16 rebounds Monday. Josh Smith and Al Horford had 35 points and 26 rebounds between them. And the Hawks outscored Portland 56-38 in the lane.
“They’re playing for something,” Woodson said of his men. And then: “They know they’ve got a chance to win every time they step on the floor.”
Five years ago, the Hawks figured it differently. They figured they’d lose no matter what happened. But look now. Look at those power ratings. Save the Web page and print it out. Put it in a frame and hang it on yonder wall. Because seeing the Hawks as No. 1 in anything good is truly a moment to treasure.