Even before the Hawks took Boston to a Game 7, it was a Laker game that served subtle notice. The date was Feb. 6, 2008 — National Signing Day in football, which meant Hawks-Lakers at Philips Arena that night wasn’t the local story of the moment. And it wasn’t exactly a clash of titans: The Hawks entered at 21-24.
But they showed something that night, something that made you sit up and say, “Hmmm.” They showedthey could outduel Kobe Bryant and his mates in a tight game. (The final was 98-95.) They showed their rookie center was more than a match for the Lakers’ just-acquired Pau Gasol. (Al Horford had 15 points and 20 rebounds to Gasol’s 12 and seven.)
Afterward Ed Peskowitz, one of the Hawks’ several owners, said to Sekou Smith, then of the ol’ AJC and now of NBA.com: “We have arrived.”
True confession: Sekou and I giggled over that one. These being the Hawks, they lost their next six games.
But that victory over the Lakers helped convince Peskowitz and his many partners and even the Hawks themselves that they weren’t as bad as we’d come to regard them. Ten days later, Billy Knight traded four players — Tyronn Lue, Shelden Williams, Anthony Johnson and Lorenzen Wright, plus a second-round draft pick — to Sacramento for Mike Bibby.
The new point guard’s debut was a dud: An egregious 122-93 loss to the Lakers in L.A., in which the visitors trailed by 41 points in the first half. But the Hawks would go 14-13 over their final 27 games and slip into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. They were a No. 8 seed, but they took the champion-to-be Celtics to the limit before losing. And that playoff series was, to borrow from Mr. Peskowitz, the actual time of arrival.
The Laker game, however, was the first hint. Those Lakers would go on to win the Western Conference and lose to the aforementioned Celtics in the NBA finals. Over a decade of losing we’d gotten used to the Hawks being overwhelmed by whatever big-name visitor entered their building. That night they weren’t.
The two meet again tonight, and this time it’s a match of near-equals: The Hawks have won 47 games, the Lakers 54. If the Hawks win again — they beat the Lakers at Philips last season as well — it won’t be a surprise at all.