Admit it: You were surprised the Hawks beat the Celtics on Friday. But why should anyone have been surprised?
These same Hawks, give or take, beat the same Celtics, give or take, three times in six days at Philips Arena in spring 2008. Last season the Hawks swept the Celtics in the regular season. And the Hawks, as the Atlanta Spirit is forever reminding us, are still this Hot Young Team. Why, at this late date, should the sight of a youngish team beating an old one — an old one that played the night before in San Antonio, we must note — serve to shock?
Because we’ve stopped believing in the Hawks. Maybe those Round 2 beatdowns the past two postseasons induced us to say, “See there? Same old Hawks.” Even though they weren’t the Same Old Hawks. (Rewind to 2000, or 2002, or 2004, or even 2006 — those Hawks were wretched.)
Maybe we never truly believed in the first place. Maybe the civic skepticism that has surrounded this franchise since the failed Moses Malone/Reggie Theus experiment of 1988-89 has never been overridden. But the cold truth is that these latter-day Hawks took the champs-to-be to a Game 7 in 2008 and then won a first-round series in each of the next two seasons, and still we weren’t sure if we were seeing their best. Ownership gave basis to that suspicion when, last May, it fired the coach who’d made the Hawks a winner and promoted the assistant who’d been alongside for six years.
Even by Hawks’ standards, this has been a weird season. They’ve won some games, but not many you care to recall. They’ve lost 15 home games — they lost only seven at Philips last season — including six in the course of 18 March days. Three home losses have come by 30 or more points, two more by 20-plus. And now, because they finally won at home against two good teams, we’re supposed to believe anew?
After Friday’s victory, the excellent-as-ever Al Horford suggested the Hawks are beginning to “figure it out,” but this correspondent would be insincere if he suggested he saw much figuring. This team has no idea what it’s going to be from night to night: In Wednesday’s narrow victory over Orlando, Jason Collins had his game of the year; two nights later he didn’t play. To beat Boston, the Hawks banked on Zaza Pachulia, whose bullishness was the difference, and didn’t deploy Josh Smith in the fourth quarter. Yeah, it worked. But is that the formula for lasting success?
After Friday’s victory, Smith said: “We’re as good as anybody — when we put an effort to it.”
First: Do the Celtics ever feel the need to remind anyone how good they are? They just know. That the Hawks ascribed so much weight to two late-season victories tells us they still aren’t sure what’s what, and how could they be — on to Part 2 of Smith’s proclamation — if effort isn’t a constant? Do you know how hard it is for a team with a winning record to lose three home games by 30-plus points? In the history of the NBA, it had never ever happened. Until now.
We’ve stopped believing in the Hawks because we’ve stopped trusting them. This remains one of the NBA’s most gifted teams — on paper, it’s clearly better than the Magic, its sure-to-be Round 1 opponent — but then you check the numbers and you note that, after 76 games, the Hawks have outscored opponents by eight lousy points all season. What have they been doing?
We on the periphery don’t know, and the Hawks surely don’t, either. Sometimes they play hard, sometimes not. Often they get embarrassed, but sometimes they rouse themselves and make a stand. “Some reporters might write us off,” Smith said, “but we’re a playoff team and we know it.”
And there it was again, the reason we no longer believe in these Atlanta Hawks: Because they’ve gotten better at telling us how good they are than at showing us. Maybe they’ll make all of their skeptics look silly when the real season commences. Maybe, but I’m skeptical.
By Mark Bradley