Apr 22, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Ian Mahinmi (28) guards Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Hawks. The Eastern Conference Finals. Just like water and oil, they have never successfully mixed. It’s seemingly a pipe-dream for fans of this tortured franchise after so many failures, but a dream that could finally be realized in 2014.
The Eastern Conference Finals is a haven the Hawks have never reached since moving to the American South from St. Louis in 1968. But now the Hawks, who are up 3-2 in the series, have two chances to eliminate the top-seeded Pacers and reach the second round. Add to that, they are just five wins away from accomplishing something that’s never been done in the last 46 seasons in Atlanta, and that has included 24 previous trips to the postseason.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, first thing’s first.
The Hawks have a golden chance to put away the Pacers on their home floor in Atlanta on Thursday. Neither team has won consecutive games in the series, and the Hawks will be looking to do just that in Game 6 after winning Game 5 at Indiana 107-97 on Monday. Each coach has implemented changes to their strategies between games leading to alternating win and loss results.
Should the Hawks stop that trend, they will win the series and advance to the second round where it would be a rare matchup of a No. 5 seed (Wizards) and No. 8 seed (Hawks) fighting for the rights to the first Eastern Conference Finals appearance for either side since 1979. The Wizards handled the four-seeded Bulls on Tuesday, clinching the first-round series 4-1, and will play the winner of the Hawks-Pacers series next round.
And Atlanta, if they can advance, should be thanking their lucky stars that the Bulls have been extinguished. Chicago went a dominating 4-0 against the Hawks this season with a 10-point average margin of victory. They gave up 100 points to the Bulls three times this season — the same Bulls team that posted only 69 points in an elimination game at home against the Wizards last night. Usually four games isn’t a big enough sample size, but the Hawks have typically struggled against the Bulls going back the past four years. Atlanta is 3-11 in the last 14 games against Chicago since the 2010-11 season.
Although the Hawks did not fare much better against the Wizards in the regular-season losing three times in four matches, over the same four-year span against the Bulls, Atlanta is 10-5 against their Southeast Division rivals from the nation’s capital.
This 2013-14 Washington team is a completely different beast, however, as backcourt tandem John Wall and Bradley Beal have elevated their games to being possibly the best 1-2 punch in the East, not to mention Trevor Ariza’s re-emergence as an elite 3-point shooter and defensive player.
Should the Hawks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, they would almost certainly face off against the dream-killing Miami Heat, in what would look to be the biggest disparity in Eastern Conference Finals history. The defending two-time champs will play the winner of the Nets-Raptors series in the second round.
However, that is far in the future for the Hawks — a team that has failed to escape the first-round the past two years.
Even if not this season, it’s bound to happen one day.
But for a 38-44 team that barely made the playoffs, that accomplishment by the Hawks this season would be astounding after being borderline inconceivable just weeks ago.
In a February that brought a rare ice storm to Atlanta, nothing was colder than the city’s basketball team. Two months ago, the Hawks’ boat was shipwrecked by injuries and left for dead after a 1-14 stretch of hopelessness.
But somehow, the Hawks were able to rebound at the end of the season to win six of their final eight games and secure the 8th spot in the East. During this period, Atlanta returned to their principles of spacing the floor and finding the open shooter with unselfish play. Though their three-point shooting has been inconsistent in the first four playoff games, they have come close to dealing the Pacers a knockout punch with an 3-point explosion in Game 5 as they hit 15 threes and finished with a 55.6 percentage from behind the arc, allowing them to take a 3-2 series advantage.
With this as an example, the Hawks have a puncher’s chance in any series matchup thanks to their 3-point shooting prowess.
Jump-shooting introduces an element of variance that can help David slay the Goliath’s of the NBA with a hot stretch of shooting, in similar fashion to how a mid-major team knocks off a blue blood program in March Madness.
Atlanta was the 2nd most prolific 3-point shooting team, having fired up 25.8 attempts per game, and were tied for 2nd in 3-pointers made per game with 9.4. They also hoisted up three-pointers on 31.6% of all field goal attempts.
When the Hawks offense is clicking by spacing the floor and being aggressive in transition, opponents have witnessed an almost unstoppable flurry of 3’s. And the most dangerous part is the diversity in contribution. Eight player attempt at least two 3-pointers a game, from the starting point guard Jeff Teague to the starting center Pero Antic. It’s awfully hard to gameplan for, as Indiana head coach Frank Vogel and the Pacers are learning. Hopefully Wizards head coach Randy Wittman will have a similar problem soon, but there’s still work to be done before that moment.
The path is there. The possibility is present. In the most unlikely of scenarios, we could see the Atlanta Hawks in a seven-game fight for the rights to battle the Western Conference champion in the NBA Finals.
In a postseason of proving naysayers wrong, this would be the ultimate jab to sports pundits everywhere.
However, don’t hold your breath for respect from those same pundits.
Like in this Indiana series, the subject is always about the favorite’s failures and never about the underdog’s triumph.
And the all too often overlooked Hawks wouldn’t have it any other way.