A wonder: The stubborn Hawks are finally figuring things out

Appearances aside, this is a Josh Smith happy face. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

This is a Josh Smith happy face. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

They’re two games from the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1994, and even then they weren’t that close. (They trailed 3-1, won Game 5 here but returned to Indianapolis for Game 6. The end.) For a real antecedent, we flash back to the most famous playoff series in Atlanta Hawks annals, to Round 2 in 1988.

The Hawks trailed the Celtics 2-0 and appeared bound for the usual Boston beatdown, whereupon they won Games 3 and 4 here and, wonder of wonders, took Game 5 in the old Boston Garden. They had two chances to win once, and they lost each — the first, at the old Omni, was a whiff; the second, back in Boston, was a classic — by two points.

Twenty-three years later, the Hawks again have a real Round 2 shot. They’ve surprised the No. 1 seed twice already, first by stealing a march in Game 1, again by refusing to succumb in Sunday’s Game 4. Coming into the series minus Kirk Hinrich, winning one game seemed the most anyone could expect. Four games gone, it would be no great shock if the Hawks stole this.

Back to the late ’80s: The Hawks kept stumbling over the Celtics and the Pistons, both of whom were really good, in Round 2. But at least with those Hawks we knew what we were getting. They had a style, and they played hard every time out.

These Hawks, by way of contrast, spent a regular season dropping hints that a wall had been met. They won nine fewer games. They lost 17 times at Philips Arena. They were outscored on the season. When the Hawks say, “Nobody gave us a chance in the playoffs” … well, there’s a reason nobody did. This team was all over the map.

To look now is to see a team unlike the one we’d seen this season or any season this century. We see a team figuring things out on the fly, which is frankly incredible: These Hawks had become infamous for never figuring out anything. (Indeed, when Al Horford spoke those words — “We’re starting to figure it out” — after an April Fools’ Day victory over Boston, only fools were surprised to see the Hawks lose their next six games.)

Somehow, though, the can’t-do kids have reconfigured themselves. Handed a gift excuse with Hinrich’s absence, they’ve rendered it a strength. “It’s all about matchups,” Joe Johnson said Monday. “I wish Kirk was out there, but it’s almost a blessing in disguise. Jeff Teague is so quick he’s able to match Derrick Rose.”

Here Johnson paused. Then he said: “Funny how things kind of work out sometimes.”

Work out? For these Hawks? Since when?

Since now. Note the difference between Mike Woodson, the former coach, and Larry Drew, the former Woodson assistant now in charge. Woodson sought to guard Dwight Howard the same way four consecutive games in Round 2 last season, the result being four record blowouts. After the Hawks lost meekly in Game 3 here Friday, Drew redrew his starting lineup to include Jason Collins, who brings effort if nothing else, and it yielded the needed flying start.

Johnson: “Coach Woodson tried, and he’d make changes here and there. With LD it’s not just one adjustment — it’s four or five. We’ve just bought into it.”

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Yes, if grudgingly. Josh Smith needed four games  in this series to play the way Josh Smith should, but his performance Sunday made us remember why it was we’d gotten excited about this guy in the first place. Even as we wonder why it took so long, we must credit him for getting it right at the right moment.

Johnson again: “We’re maturing as players and coaches.”

Maybe they are. They’ve thrown a scare into Chicago, which won 18 more games this season but sits one home wobble from elimination. We’ve all been frustrated by this team’s inconsistency and intransigence over time, but in the here and now they’re two games from Round 3, where the Atlanta Hawks have never been.

“You can’t get to the rainbow without going through rain,” said Jamal Crawford, who’s from Seattle. So he should know.

By Mark Bradley

140 comments Add your comment

juvenal

May 9th, 2011
1:39 pm

Enter your comments here

juvenal

May 9th, 2011
1:42 pm

took a few days off?

SABER

May 9th, 2011
1:44 pm

I am so tired of losing. I really do hope the Hawks find a way to pull this off.

SABER

May 9th, 2011
1:48 pm

juvenal – You wasted the 1st reply! Bradley would have showed you some love.

Kevin

May 9th, 2011
1:49 pm

Mark Bradley

May 9th, 2011
1:49 pm

Kudos again, juvenal. And yes, I did. I’d worked 18 consecutive days.

Aaron

May 9th, 2011
1:50 pm

First time I have ever felt this with the Hawks: Hope.

Gwalk

May 9th, 2011
1:52 pm

Can’t wait! Let’s do this! Go Hawks! !! !

juvenal

May 9th, 2011
1:53 pm

gotta act like you’ve been there before, SABER……actually the quickest way to nab the 1 spot……going to take a day off & go to Lexington next weekend for a family wedding, looking forward to it…….

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
1:53 pm

Nice piece. These Hawks are nothing if not an interesting little basketball team.

SABER

May 9th, 2011
1:54 pm

juvenal – Well played my friend… very well played.

NCBravesFan

May 9th, 2011
1:54 pm

It has been an amazing playoff run when you consider the 30+ game run that preceded it in the regular season. Frankly, I’m shocked it’s happened the way it has.

I wouldn’t bet on the Hawks closing out the Bulls but then again, I wouldn’t bet money against them either at this point.

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
1:55 pm

If they can get more consistent performances like last night MB, how far do you think they get?

Mark Bradley

May 9th, 2011
1:56 pm

Beats me, Hankie.

Gwalk

May 9th, 2011
1:56 pm

Hey Bradley, Did you like how ESPN asked Josh on National Television if he was going to play like he did last night or if it was just for one game? Maybe the question in front of a national audience will help him get over the hump and become the star player that he really is. This team is his for the taking!

jon

May 9th, 2011
1:57 pm

C’mon hawks… you can do it!… and you can own the town for now!

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
1:58 pm

Mark,
How far do you think they get? I think you are on record as saying the Bulls survive right?

Gwalk

May 9th, 2011
1:58 pm

Hey Bradley, Did you like how ESPN asked Josh on National Television if he was going to play like he did last night or if it was just for one game? Maybe the question in front of a national audience will help him get over the hump and become the star player that he really is. This team is his for the taking!!

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
1:58 pm

I believe IF they get by the Bulls, they can handle the C’s but not the Heat.

jon

May 9th, 2011
1:59 pm

Mark if i remember corectly the 88 team really didn’t start playing well until the playoffs. Don’t forget if doc hits those free throws in game 6, we had a good chance to beat Pistons that year!

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
1:59 pm

Sorry for the redundantcy

Paul

May 9th, 2011
1:59 pm

Great game 4 from the Hawks. Would anyone be suprised if we lost game 5 by 30?

homer

May 9th, 2011
2:01 pm

I hate getting my hopes up. This team can look so good one game and so bad the next.

Hankie Aron

May 9th, 2011
2:01 pm

The big difference is Teague overall. For last night, yes it was Josh Smith but overall I think the emergence of Teague is fascinating.

JeJe

May 9th, 2011
2:05 pm

Won on April Fools Day, then lost 6 straight

LOL!!

Damn did anyone else on here know that? I didn’t

tom

May 9th, 2011
2:07 pm

at this it’s best to forget about trying to figure this team out and just enjoy the ride. Seeing this team finally start to show signs of maturity when the games count is awesome. GO HAWKS! Represent the A-T-L!!!

Biff Pocoroba Fan Club

May 9th, 2011
2:13 pm

The Atlanta Hawks: On any given night they can win a game by 3 points or lose a game by 30 points.

nola hawk fan

May 9th, 2011
2:14 pm

Great to have you back MB… missed your thoughts on these schitzo hawks. But hey, always glad to hear a man gets some needed time off.

Question – looking ahead to 2011-12, do you see Jamal leaving and have a 3 card rotation of JJ, Kirk and Teague? To me that actually might be an upgrade seeing how well JT has played. A dime for your thought sir…

Nate D

May 9th, 2011
2:15 pm

I think if we can beat the bulls we can beat the celtics or bulls. Why cant josh play like this evernight when he does this it makes me not want to trade him. Still trade marvin willams for Bynum.

jfreak13713

May 9th, 2011
2:16 pm

I should have my head examined for saying this but the Hawks seem to have the mojo right now and “sometimes” that can carry an underdog further than expected. I think the Hawks do have a real chance to beat Chicago not because they are better but because they are playing better right now. Good luck guys make us proud!

Time

May 9th, 2011
2:18 pm

I’ve defended this team over the years. Kept believing that eventually they’d all figure it out, play smart basketball, and win a bunch of games, maybe even a championship. They’re talented enough.

I hope I’m wrong. Last night was really some impressive basketball by the Hawks. Problem is, we’ve seen this before. A great win, moving the ball, defense, rebounding. And every time we fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve “finally” started to figure things out. I fell in the same trap as recently as the Orlando series.

Again, hope I’m wrong. But I think this team is just being Lucy again, telling us she’ll hold the ball all the way through the kick, we believe, then right as we kick, she rips it away and we end up flat on our face.

Harry Hawk

May 9th, 2011
2:19 pm

As nice as it was to see the Hawks put it together last night, how do you forget the previous two games? This team is Team Sybil. You cannot trust it.

That being said, I have to admit that the Hawks would have a great chance to win this thing if we could count on them. The Bulls have been pretty disappointing this postseason. It could be because they are going through the growing pains of learning how to win big at this level. I don’t know, but the Hawks have a real opportunity to put away childish things and really do something special.

truth

May 9th, 2011
2:20 pm

its sad that we are happy that the Hawks won 2 games in the 2ND ROUND!!!

Other cities would view anything short of a Final Appearance or champioship a disappointment

mountain_jim

May 9th, 2011
2:21 pm

Mark, folks around here are spoiled. They expect you to keep writing and posting these blogs everyday. After all, we are here wasting time and adding to your page views every day.

DCBrave33

May 9th, 2011
2:23 pm

Mark, are you going to be in Chi-town for the game tomorrow night? Also, knowing how unpredictable the Hawks are, could you venture a guess on how likely the Hawks springing the upset is? 30%, 40%? I am just hopeful that they give themselves a chance in each of the remaining games. If they do that, and still lose, I can live with the result just fine.

DCBrave33

May 9th, 2011
2:28 pm

If the Hawks were able to do the amazing and upset the Bulls they would make the first ever franchise Conf. Finals. Would they then, by default, have to be considered the best ATLANTA Hawks team ever? It makes me a little sick in my mouth thinking we havent seen a team better than this in our fair city, but is it true?

Frank White

May 9th, 2011
2:29 pm

Mark, this is a really great analysis of what is now happening with the Hawks. I have been a devotee of Hawks basketball for a long time and I can’t remember when I have seen such a tremendous example of fine basketball as I saw last night. When a club can come up with powerful defense like this it is a terrific experience for all of us. Bless you…for this great piece.

realsquawk

May 9th, 2011
2:30 pm

Proud of Josh for playing well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he reverted back to his old ways.

Frank White

May 9th, 2011
2:31 pm

Mark…great work on summing up the Hawks and their super play right now.

Barry

May 9th, 2011
2:32 pm

I’m a sucker for the Hawks. I can’t help but root for them, even though this group is not easy to root for. But I don’t have a lot of confidence in them. When they play hard and share the ball (and Josh Smith actually plays around the basket), there isn’t a team in the league they can’t beat in a series, including the Heat. But I don’t think they have it in them. I hope they prove me wrong. I did like LD calling out JJ on being tougher, though.

BjohnDawg

May 9th, 2011
2:34 pm

To the Hawks……Just win the whole damn thing!
To Josh Smith…..keep that backside in the paint, and you will be able to practice your Jump shot and three point range at the Next All star game.

RIP BRUCE

May 9th, 2011
2:34 pm

SO f***ing happy for my HAWKS!!!! Cant believe they are still fighting. Cmon ROUND 3!!!!!

steve brown

May 9th, 2011
2:37 pm

One game by Josh and you love him again. What a joke. I would move the smooth so fast it would make his head spin. And Mr. Bradley you should know better.

J "Moo"ve

May 9th, 2011
2:40 pm

Mark,

Where did you go for vacation? We have missed you dearly.

TheAntiMe

May 9th, 2011
2:40 pm

I’m not so sure that they are just now figuring it out, Mark. I have to believe that they must have had some clue that giving effort and helping your teammates out on defense, along with sharing the ball on offense shows much better results than doing the exact opposite. I mean, over the last couple of years, most of the games that they have won against quality opponents entailed doing these same things that they managed to get right last night.

I hate to say it, but especially after watching these guys play in the second half of this season, it seems to me that these Hawks are constantly fighting their own team chemistry issues. The core of this team has been together for so long now that it seems to me that they are constantly battling the ego demons. It sometimes appears to me that certain players are prone to be jealous of each other and want to show that they are the man on this team.

So certain players who make up the “core”, far too often seem to fall into the trap of competing with each other to be the man instead of assisting and complementing each other to be the team. When these dudes are successful in checking their egos at the door they are capable of some very fine play. When they fail to do so, it all too often gets very ugly.

I’m not trying to judge anyone as a person because we are all prone to those same shortcomings but hopefully the Hawks will see on a much more regular basis that the greater good of the team is much more satisfying than outshining your teammates.

steve brown

May 9th, 2011
2:41 pm

On the racial front 2 Laker thugs take their “frustration” out on 2 light skinned Maverick players (one the smallest on the floor) and Barkley blames the white Indiana coach. Come on Charles get real, that was Ghetto hoop!

ncb34

May 9th, 2011
2:41 pm

i hate to look ahead, but this team matches up well with the heat if you ask me.. and this celtic’s team is a little older than the one the hawks took to game 7 a few years ago.. too optimistic?

Rodney King

May 9th, 2011
2:42 pm

Wait, did someone bring up the race card? Let me call Jesse

Ryno

May 9th, 2011
2:43 pm

Three very quick points:

1. I have to admit, when watching the games at home I almost always chuckle when I hear the 15,000 people groan whenever Josh Smith shoots outside of the paint. I can’t remember hearing anything like that for any other player.

2. It’s time to give Damien Wilkins 10 more minutes a game and Marvin Williams 10 less. At least Wilkins will rebound like a man

3. PAY JEFF TEAGUE, NOW!

TheAntiMe

May 9th, 2011
2:44 pm

Enter your comments here. I’m trying to:

I’m not so sure that they are just now figuring it out, Mark. I have to believe that they must have had some clue that giving effort and helping your teammates out on defense, along with sharing the ball on offense shows much better results than doing the exact opposite. I mean, over the last couple of years, most of the games that they have won against quality opponents entailed doing these same things that they managed to get right last night.

I hate to say it, but especially after watching these guys play in the second half of this season, it seems to me that these Hawks are constantly fighting their own team chemistry issues. The core of this team has been together for so long now that it seems to me that they are constantly battling the ego demons. It sometimes appears to me that certain players are prone to be jealous of each other and want to show that they are the man on this team.

So certain players who make up the “core”, far too often seem to fall into the trap of competing with each other to be the man instead of assisting and complementing each other to be the team. When these dudes are successful in checking their egos at the door they are capable of some very fine play. When they fail to do so, it all too often gets very ugly.

I’m not trying to judge anyone as a person because we are all prone to those same shortcomings but hopefully the Hawks will see on a much more regular basis that the greater good of the team is much more satisfying than outshining your teammates.