Two springs ago we wondered if the Hawks could keep from being swept by Boston. At issue this night is whether the Hawks can sweep Boston. Yes, there’s a difference — those were the playoffs, and this is the regular season — but any graph of the local team’s climb from sub-.500 to near-sublime must include a pushpin for those 15 days in 2008.
In their heart of hearts, the Hawks were probably hoping to win one game. They won three, all at Philips Arena, each more improbable than before. They won Game 3 and the Celtics ran out to a huge lead in Game 4, as if to say, “Order is being restored to nature.” But the Hawks won that night, too, and four nights later they were back at home, this time facing elimination.
Again the Celtics took an early lead. Again the Hawks outfought them down the stretch. (The home side scored on 17 consecutive possessions, which isn’t just good — it’s obscene.) And even if that strangely rousing series ended with a blowout loss in TD Banknorth Garden, it was clear that something had changed in the A-T-L. We had ourselves a basketball team again.
Last season Mike Woodson said it 25, maybe 50 times: “The Celtics taught us how to play playoff basketball.” But it was more than that. From beating the Celtics — who would go on to become NBA champs — three times in the spring of ‘08, the Hawks realized that they were capable of playing not just basketball but inspired basketball. They were tough enough and talented enough to hang in, at least at home, against the absolute best.
And now they’ve stamped themselves as among the best. They were tied for the lead in the NBA Southeast entering Friday night’s game and stood only a half-game behind the imperial C’s for second place in the East. The Hawks have gone from 37-45 in 2007-2008 to 47-35 last season and were on pace to go 54-28 this time. They placed two players on the All-Star roster, should have a third and could have had a fourth.
They’ve gotten so good so fast that they have attracted imitators. Oklahoma City and Portland are trying to do as the Hawks have done, which is to accumulate as much young talent as possible and give it room to grow. And now it’s Boston, which was 4-0 against the Hawks in the 2008-2009 regular season, that’s having to address speculation about being too old to fend off this young usurper.
Or, as was the case after the Hawks beat the Celtics on Jan. 11, not to address it. Were the Hawks, a reporter asked Glen Davis, in the C’s collective head? “Next question,” Big Baby sniffed.
Sweeps don’t really mean much unless they come in postseason, but just being 3-0 and in position to put the ol’ broom to the pride of Beantown offered yet another gauge on these Hawks. No, Kevin Garnett didn’t play in two of the three losses, but he played in the first meeting — Nov. 13 up there — and the vistors won by 11. (Besides, we all know the Big Ticket wants no part of the big Zaza. Yes, I’m kidding.)
It was two springs ago that Boston taught the Hawks how to play playoff basketball, and no one, the Celtics least of all, could have known how apt and ambitious their pupils would prove. The Green People now seem yesterday’s men — they were outscored 35-22 in the fourth quarter of a two-point loss in Orlando on Thursday — while more and more the Hawks seem the team of tomorrow. And maybe today.
And with that, I’ll open the floor to questions, comments and Tweets from Spirit the Hawk. (Remember him?) I’ll be chatting until game’s end, and I welcome your company.