The greatest favor you can do the Atlanta Hawks is to discount them. They hate that, which is to say they love it.
“[Pundits] help us out a lot by counting us out,” Josh Smith said Monday. “We like to prove people wrong. [Being summarily dismissed] is disrespectful.”
The Hawks are playing the Boston Celtics in a 4-versus-5 series, which by definition should be seen as a coin flip. This one was projected to be a Boston walkover — even though the Hawks held the homecourt edge in the sport where playing at home matters most.
It was as if these were still the callow Hawks of 2008 — the No. 8 seed lugging a losing record — and their opponent was an in-its-prime Boston team that had won 66 games. Neither of those things is true. These Hawks lost Al Horford, heretofore considered indispensable, in the season’s 11th game and still won more than the Celtics.
To the chattering class, that mattered not one whit. Boston was still Boston, which it demonstrably is not, and the Hawks were still the Hawks, whatever that means. To be fair, it can be hard to know exactly what the Hawks are.
This has been a pretty nice team for a while. This is its fifth playoff run in succession, and it has advanced to Round 2 the past three seasons. They were fourth in the East in 2008-2009, third in 09-10, fifth last season, fourth this time. No, they haven’t become a gold-plated colossus, but they’ve won a lot of games. Trouble is, not many of those victories seem to have registered.
“Boston has just been talked about in that [exalted] way ever since the Big Three [Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce] got there,” Smith said, speaking the day after the Hawks had led wire to wire in Game 1. “It’s been Boston, Chicago and Miami. It’s like no other Eastern Conference team existed.”
That’s overstating, if just. Cleveland was a big deal before You Know Who took his talents You Know Where, and Orlando was seen as a power until Dwight Howard’s whining began to override Dwight Howard’s playing. Still, there’s a difference between being a Brand Name and Brand X — the latter struggles for shelf space.
Said Smith, sarcasm rising: “We’re not concerned with what analysts –quote-unquote ‘analysts’ — think. It all kind of ties down to what kind of sports town this is. You go to Boston and every game is sold out. Go to Chicago and every game is sold out. If you don’t have the title of being a sports-fanatical town, they’re reluctant to talk about you.”
There’s truth there. The Celtics and Bulls played to 100 percent capacity (or more, in Chicago’s case) even in this post-lockout season; the Hawks played to 81.9 percent of Philips Arena’s capacity, which ranked them 24th in a 30-team league. But the national disdain for the Hawks isn’t so much data-based as perception-fueled: Put simply, the Hawks are seen as a screwy team.
Which brings us to our second Talking Point: The worst curse you can hurl at the Atlanta Hawks is to suggest they’re ready to take a step up in class. Because every such forecast to date has gone unfulfilled.
From being swept in Round 2 by Cleveland in 2009 to swept (by 101 aggregate points) by Orlando the next year to losing in six to Chicago last spring after stealing Game 1 up there; from beating the Heat with all hands on deck in Miami on Jan. 2 to losing to the LeBron-less, D-Wade-less Heat in Philips three days later … this is a team that lives to confound us. And that’s why the Hawks are in both a good and bad place as they approach Game 2.
If they grab a 2-0 lead, it will be difficult for an opponent of advanced age to claim the series by winning the requisite four of five. And the Celtics will be without their best player, Rajon Rondo, who has been suspended for bumping ref Marc Davis at the shank of Game 1. (Wait a second. Isn’t it the Hawks who were supposed to lose their cool?)
Without Rondo, you’d have to like the Hawks’ chances. You’d like them until you recall that January loss to depleted Miami, or the home loss this month against a Toronto team that included three men working on 10-day contracts. The simple reason the Hawks aren’t taken more seriously is that, over time, they’ve contrived to lose in ways that suggest they aren’t as good as their record. Here’s their chance to win a big game they’re supposed to win. Here’s their chance to shut some yaps.
By Mark Bradley