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.”
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