Whatever the Hawks are now, and whatever they will become during their sometimes uneven dribbling from goodness to beyond over the next few weeks, months and years, they owe it to a new enemy who will always be their old friend.
Keep this between us, OK? Doc Rivers wears green as coach of Boston’s famous basketball team, but he still has the Hawks flying around his heart.
“Always,” said Rivers, the former Hawks standout, acknowledging Friday night that he isn’t exactly displeased that Philips Arena has evolved into a noisy and lovely place this season for the Hawks with a mighty assist from his Celtics.
Rivers eyes danced with joy as he returned to the 1980s, while comparing the Hawks’ splendid past with their promising present and future. “I told some of our (Boston) guys, ‘Man, the way it is now is the way it used to be around here with Dominique (Wilkins) and Spud (Webb) and Mike Fratello, and they went, ‘Get out of here,’ ” Rivers said. “When people say this city doesn’t support its teams, I’ve long said, ‘Oh, no. I know they do. I saw it.’ You just have to give them something to believe in, and they have something to believe in now.”
They do, courtesy of Rivers’ Celtics, still the NBA’s best until the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Los Angeles Lakers prove otherwise in June. This time, the Hawks sought to use their extra giddyup whenever they see shamrocks these days to grab a deeper hold on one of those home-court-advantage slots in the playoffs.
It’s just that the Celtics have their Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Even with Garnett and his sore right knee missing this one, the Celtics survived the Hawks’ impressive sprint down the stretch for a 99-93 victory with their Big Two and everybody else. The Celtics were just bigger, better and deeper than the Hawks. While Glen Davis used his 290-something pounds to bang his way to a slew of rebounds, Eddie House left the bench to join Pierce and Allen in clobbering the Hawks from outside.
The Hawks aren’t there yet. You can see as much since they just finished the middle portion of their murderers’ row against recent world champs that began with a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, and the ugly stretch will continue on Sunday at home against the Lakers.
Against the Spurs, the Hawks lost their defensive intensity. Against the Celtics, the Hawks just lost.
Even so, there was last season when the Hawks nearly ruined the Celtics’ march to a world championship in the first round of the playoffs. Then came two Atlanta-Boston thrillers earlier this season to inspire the Hawks to prominence against others.
“They’re not far away from being elite,” Rivers said. “They’ve got the right core. They just need some little fringe pieces. The biggest thing for a young team is to get all of them — to a man — to sacrifice.”
The Hawks do, but only in spurts. The Spurs, the Celtics and the Lakers sacrifice all the time. That’s the difference.