Jeff Teague completes a nasty spin move to get right by a decimated Roy Hibbert and score. The sold out Philips Arena covered in shirts that said “The PAC is Back” were on their feet. That gave the Hawks a lead with just minutes left in game six of the first round, and with a win, the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks would knock off the top seed in the Indiana Pacers.
They let one go.
Lou Williams threw the ball right to Paul George, and that would be it. Over 19,000 people were stunned and it felt like someone stuck a needle in the ballooning momentum the team had gained.
They weren’t supposed to be there. Al Horford got hurt back in December, they had a rookie head coach, and just about every player on the roster had battled injuries. Yet there they were, just minutes from facing the Washington Wizards in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The Knicks had more talent, the Cavaliers were better on paper, the Pistons had spent a lot of money on free agents, yet it was the Hawks who nabbed the final spot in the East, despite all the ailments they faced.
The Lakers, Knicks, Nets, and other teams stated injuries when it came to their respective seasons, but the Hawks rolled up their sleeves and got to work. There were no excuses from Mike Budenholzer or the players, and they worked hard to earn the final spot in the playoffs. Say whatever you please about their sub .500 record, but make sure you note that this team had no quit.
Take yourself back to December 23rd, and you’ll find a 15-12 team that was sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference. Much was written and said about how bad the conference was at the time, but you couldn’t say there were only two teams above .500. It was always “The East only has three teams above .500: THE HEAT, THE PACERS, and oh yeah the Hawks.” Oh yeah, the Hawks. Those guys who looked like they were in for a special season, and they were set to prove they belonged with a game against the Heat that night.
The game was everything the Hawks could want. They had pushed the champs to overtime, but that night quickly became about more than just a regular season game in December. Al Horford left the game late with an injury, and their worst fears were realized when the tests showed Horford had a torn pectoral, and would miss the season.
Before the injury, the Hawks arguably three All-Stars in Jeff Teague, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap, but without their center, it would be a tough task to keep with the pace they were on. Throughout the remaining games, the Hawks would have their ups and downs, and injuries really hit hard in February and March, and that led to a stretch of 15 games where they could only muster up one win. At one point –in a game against the Jazz– DeMarre Carroll was playing center for Atlanta. That prompted them to sign their second round pick, Mike Muscala, and it was time to prepare for the stretch run.
It would go down to the wire, but the Hawks beat the Heat on April 12th to make the playoffs. This trip to the postseason made it seven straight for the Hawks, which is the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference.
This time was different.
Gone were the likes of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Mike Woodson’s staff. Gone were the same lulls that made the franchise receive criticism despite their success. Now, they had a new feel to the entire organization. There was new ownership, a GM in his second season, a rookie head coach, and they finally had some financial flexibility.
As we all know, the Hawks pushed the Pacers to seven games, and they created national buzz. They were in need of some national buzz. Philips Arena was packed, the fans were loud, and there was something that had been lacking in the past few years: hope.
So, is all of the hope and momentum gone since they lost to the Pacers? Not so fast. This whole season was house money for Atlanta. With them bringing in Budenholzer and choosing not to lock themselves up with salary, this season was about rebuilding and retooling. They showed the nation a preview of things to come under the new regime.
Right before the game six loss, the Hawks announced that they were going to bring back the “Pacman” logo, and it was bringing back the glory days that were filled with Dominique Wilkins highlights. That logo brought even more buzz to the team, and things were bright in all facets.
While analyzing the first round series, I kept hearing national analysts say things like, “This is a bad Hawks team” or “The Pacers should beat this team because they are bad.” I hate to break it to those who chose to use the word “bad” to describe the Hawks, but you’re wrong. The Hawks were in the top 15 in both offense and defense in terms of per 100 possessions, and that was with all those injuries. They proved that they belonged in the playoffs by challenging the top seed, whether that team was struggling or not.
Coach Budenholzer and his staff also showed the ability to get the most out of players. Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, and others had career years under this system, and the whole team gave off a vibe that mirrored the San Antonio Spurs. What better franchise to emulate than the most successful team in recent NBA history.
Now, with a new/old logo, a healthy, talented core coming back, and some financial flexibility this summer, the Hawks have a very bright future. What that playoff series show wasn’t that they could hang with the Pacers, but it showed that this is a team that Atlanta should get behind next season. It showed free agents that there is a new culture in the ATL, and it showed the nation that they better watch out for the Hawks.
So now that the season is over, what should we make of it? I think it’s safe to say that this season was successful. They made the playoffs despite being without their best player, and they made a serious splash on the national stage. They now have a system that will only get more familiar to the players, some money to spend in free agency, and a first round draft pick. Things are bright in Atlanta, and it’s time for everyone in the league to recognize that the Hawks are on the rise.