The Hawks arrived home 2-0, having won at Memphis and Philadelphia. A year ago, we’d have been surprised if the Hawks lost to either of those teams, neither of which made the playoffs. This year — and let’s be frank — we were kind of surprised they didn’t lose at least once.
Saturday night brought the home opener of a strange team at a strange point in its exceedingly strange history. Lest we forget, these Hawks won 53 games last season and were the No. 3 seed in the NBA East. (Ahead of the Celtics, who wound up winning the Eastern Conference crown.)
“I think people have forgotten,” said Jamal Crawford, the reigning NBA sixth man of the year. And lots of them have, or else their memory has been clouded by that staggering loss suffered by this team in Round 2 of the playoffs. The East’s No. 3 seed was swept by the No. 2 seed by a record aggregate spread of 101 points.
Four wipeout losses wiped out those 53 victories and the Round 1 comeback that undid Milwaukee. Four wipeout losses, at least in the minds of those who run this franchise, were enough to bid adieu to its coach, under whom the Hawks had improved five seasons running.
(I pause to digress. Two weeks ago I was on the deafening end of a high-decibel call. The former Hawks’ coach paused in the middle of a round of golf to remind me that he was no longer coaching this team and demanded that his name no longer be invoked. I have considered Mike Woodson’s request, and it is hereby denied.)
The new coach is Larry Drew, who was Woodson’s assistant those six seasons. His campaign for the job was essentially, “I’m not Mike.” This — and the cold economic truth that Drew would come cheap — was enough to sell the Atlanta Spirit on his candidacy. It went over less well with the public.
And when the Hawks went 2-5 in exhibition games, two of them being wipeout losses to Orlando — yep, once more — and Charlotte, it became clear that Drew the New had more riding on the regular season’s opening week than just about any rookie coach ever. To his credit, he led the Hawks to two road wins and bought himself room to breathe.
Said Crawford: “We have a whole new scheme, a whole new everything.”
And that’s true, but untrue. They have a new coach who wants things done differently on offense and defense. (I ask again: If Woodson and Drew diverged this much on the basics of basketball, why were they working together?) They do not, however, have a new team. These are the same Hawks, give or take Josh Powell and Jordan Crawford and Etan Thomas, that we’ve come to know.
But maybe they’re not. Joe Johnson led the team in scoring in Games 1 and 2, but Friday’s victory in Philadelphia seemed a bit of a revelation. Johnson played less than three other starters and took fewer shots than Al Horford and Josh Smith. And the game’s biggest bucket was made by the latter, the sort of 3-point try that has long made Hawks fans cringe.
Recalling Smith’s vital shot before tipoff Saturday, Drew almost cringed himself. Then he smiled: “The basketball gods were with us.”
And that never hurts. As much as sharing the ball and not switching on every screen — Drew’s points of departure from the previous coach — the warm glow of fortune never hurts any team at any level. On Saturday, the Hawks were to play the Washington Wizards, and they were hoping their luck hadn’t deserted them overnight.
And with that, the floor is open for questions, comments and requests not to invoke Mike Woodson’s name anymore than necessary. And if you’re just joining us from Georgia-Florida … well, let me know who won, OK?