“And That’s Okay.”
The wise words of Stuart Smalley bring on a chance to ponder just what was put to an end as the Indiana Pacers came out on top in Game 7 of the first-round series, ending the Atlanta Hawks’ 2013-14 season.
The demise of the Hawks effort to upset the top-seeded Pacers in the first round leaves something to be desired, but their effort to even push the series to seven games should be rewarded with praise.
Its hard to imagine the photo above was taken 190 days ago. The opening game of the year in Dallas where the Hawks would concede their first loss of the season to a Mavericks squad led by Monta Ellis and his 32 points and eight assists. Hawks’ fans had their eyes set on Paul Millsap and new first-time head coach Mike Budenholzer, the two biggest acquisitions by the franchise over the previous summer, and here was their first chance to see what they have to offer. Josh Smith was gone and Danny Ferry’s image of the team was and still is just starting to form. The Atlanta Hawks team that stepped onto the floor that night didn’t have high expectations. The Eastern Conference was ready to be dominated by the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. The remaining seeds were left for the new-and-improved Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons, along with a Washington Wizards team hungry for a playoff spot.
The 2013-14 season was supposed to be a gap year for Atlanta. Just 82 games in the way of another free agency period, where the team would then have a chance to thrust themselves into the conversation of contenders in the East. The 2013-14 season wasn’t supposed to matter.
But, a meaningless season doesn’t get people to games, and I’ll ask you to leave the attendance discussion at the door, because people were still looking for reasons to watch this team.
The Hawks did what they were supposed to do: they made you fall in love with them.
The 2013-14 Atlanta Hawks were a team looking for a new identity. The core players that started a string of seven straight playoff appearances were gone for the most part and in their place was a new group of guys that were beginning to shape.
The team had its adjustment period, starting the season 9-9 as December approached, but coach Budenholzer had a system ready to be implemented and success was the only acceptable result. Suddenly, the team was more enjoyable to watch even through early struggles. The players were buying in, and an image was forming of a team looking for the extra pass and taking the right shots. Jeff Teague was emerging as a key player for the Hawks and Paul Millsap was already making people forget about the flaws of Josh Smith that fans witnessed for entire seasons. The Hawks were overachieving, and now found themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference standings as other fan bases, such as New York and Brooklyn, were witnessing their teams underachieving drastically. Atlanta was a lock for a top-4 seed and could also possibly make a deep run in the post-season.
Then it happened.
December 26th, 2013.
The Hawks were fresh off a few days rest from Christmas break and were flying up to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs were still a team that couldn’t be written off, and the Hawks found themselves entering a second consecutive overtime game. The first extra period was winding down and the Hawks were facing a two-point deficit with the Cavs inbounding. Jarrett Jack inbounded the ball to Anderson Varejao with Al Horford right there to attempt to pick the ball free. Horford was unsuccessful in his steal attempt and the Cavs would go forth with a short possession ending in a floater that was off the mark. The Hawks got the ball back but now it is obvious something is wrong with Atlanta’s All-Star center as he’s holding his arm near the top of the key. The replay showed there wasn’t serious contact. Horford’s injury couldn’t be serious. …But it was.
According to a team source, Al Horford suffered a complete tear of his right pectoral muscle. #ATLHawks
— Chris Vivlamore (@ajchawks) December 27, 2013
Complete tear, a step up from the partial tear Al had suffered two years earlier that sidelined him for five months. Horford’s season was over, and Atlanta’s dream of a top-4 seed in the East suddenly seemed like an unlikely result.
The Hawks didn’t give up, there was still plenty of reasons to take the court, and it didn’t take long for the team to find a new hero to fill the void Horford left behind:
The Macedonian Hitman. The Eastern European Carlos Boozer. He just goes by Pero Antic.
The 31 year-old-rookie took advantage of the new found playing time and quickly emerged as a key member of the rotation and became the Hawks’ new starting center.
January arrived and things seemed fine for Atlanta. The team would weather through the storm Al’s injury created and would go 7-6 in the following weeks as the All-Star break approached.
However, the injury bugged loomed and once again the Hawks found themselves shuffling the rotation around to find replacements as Pero Antic would go down with an injury in late January. Hope was lost that the Hawks’ fan base and the Macedonian population would get to see Antic get a chance to play in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
Pero would earn the spot only to be replaced, and the Hawks would enter February another man down.
Atlanta struggled mightily through the next month and a half, enduring a dreadful 2-14 stretch.
Matters only got worse for the team as Paul Millsap would miss time near the end of February and John Jenkins’ season was put to rest with back surgery that had been looming since the beginning of the calendar year.
The team was written off at this point, but the people that were still paying attention were still admiring the efforts put in by the players that were still suiting up. The Hawks could have just entered the so called “tanking race” and let season go, but they choose to push forward and weathered through the injuries that had occurred.
March approached and the Hawks were edging closer to a healthy roster, for the most part.
Gustavo Ayon, who stepped up in Pero’s absence, would also see his season end in late February, but the team continued on and made a surprising move by buying out Mike Muscala from the Spanish League contract and bringing him to Atlanta. The move came out of nowhere, but his presence was welcomed as he added frontcourt depth to the roster.
The Hawks finally resumed to some normalcy and kept in pursuit of a playoff spot through the last six weeks of the regular-season. March would be home to a small winning streak followed by another losing streak, but the team would keep focus into April and left the losing streaks behind them.
The team won six of the final nine games down the stretch in April and beat out the New York Knicks for the 8th spot in the East bracket of the playoffs by one game.
The playoffs began and the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks were now faced with a familiar foe in the Indiana Pacers, who the Hawks faced in the first-round of the playoffs the previous year.
The top-seeded Pacers entered the postseason on a skid of their own and the chemistry of the team was in shambles. The Hawks were considered a matchup nightmare for Indiana and the narrative of a possible upset began as the Hawks entered Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Game 1 and came out with a victory.
Atlanta had sent a message, and the Pacers responded by taking a win of their own on their home floor in Game 2.
Now the series was tied and the Hawks were hosting the next two games. Philips Arena would be home to the best crowds the team had witnessed all season and provided the fans with a win in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Pacers couldn’t let the series go to 3-1 in favor of the Hawks and had to win in a place that had been tough for them to play in for several years. The odds didn’t bother them and the Pacers would take Game 4, bringing the series back to Indianapolis leveled at 2-2.
The tied series resumed and the Hawks continued to stay hot on the road. The huge efforts by Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack, who combined for 37 points, would push the Hawks to a Game 5 win and a 3-2 lead with a possible elimination game at home for Game 6.
The city of Atlanta was ready for a series upset and the announcement of a new secondary logo that was an evolved version of the old “Pac-Man” logo the Hawks used for nearly two decades in their heyday brought on an incredible atmosphere.
The Hawks, however, would fall short in Game 6 and the chance for the upset seemed like a long-shot as the series went back to Indianapolis for the decisive Game 7.
The Pacers were victorious in the series finale and advanced to the second round while Atlanta was sent home packing.
The Hawks now enter the off-season with a lot of work to do.
The 2014 NBA Draft is regarded as one of the better classes in nearly a decade and the Hawks will be looking for the next vital addition to the roster in hopes of continuing to improve as a whole.
Al Horford’s rehab continues and the same goes for John Jenkins.
Atlanta also has some open roster space to test the free agency waters and General Manager Danny Ferry will likely work the phones, exercising offers to try and improve the team.
Where the Hawks go from here remains to be seen, but the 2013-14 season has much to be proud of and reminisce upon. There were ups downs, but in the end it was hard not to have some fun seeing it all play out.
Hopefully the 2014-15 season will be even more fun with greater success.