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Hawks Are Heating Up Atlanta

Posted on January 30, 2010 by Dean Hybl
Despite flying under the NBA radar, Joe Johnson and the Atlanta Hawks are challenging the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Despite flying under the NBA radar, Joe Johnson and the Atlanta Hawks are challenging the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Considering that the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic have dominated the headlines in the Eastern Conference of the NBA, you might be surprised to discover that following their win Friday night over the old men from Beantown, the Atlanta Hawks actually have the second best record in the East and the fourth best record overall in the NBA.

They punctuated that fact against the Celtics with their fourth victory over Boston this season to register an improbable season sweep over the squad many just assume will be facing Cleveland for the right to play in the NBA Finals in June.

After the continued performance of the Hawks, basketball experts might have to rethink that assumption.

Though they don’t have the household names and marquee superstars of the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic, the Hawks are quietly going about their business of creating a consistent team that could be a threat come playoff time.

While it may appear to the casual fan that the Hawks have come out of nowhere, in reality this is not an Atlanta team that suddenly has risen from the dredges to become a surprise contender. In contrast, the Hawks have actually been building to a crescendo over the last couple years.

It started during the 2007-2008 season when they finished with just a 37-45 record, but still took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to a seven game series in the playoffs.

Last season Atlanta improved to 47-35 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being unceremoniously swept by the Cavaliers.

The Hawks appear to be ready to make more noise this season as, in addition to the sweep of the Celtics, they have wins over the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.

However, they still have work to be done to prove that they belong in the discussion of true championship contenders.

Atlanta has lost both of their meetings with the Cavaliers and their only meeting so far this season against the defending conference champion Magic.

In his third season, Al Horford will be making his first All-Star appearance.

In his third season, Al Horford will be making his first All-Star appearance.

They will get a chance to send a message to Orlando on Saturday as they complete a tough back-to-back stretch with a quick to Orlando. Atlanta will then travel to Oklahoma City to face the much improved Thunder before hosting the Los Angeles Clippers and an improving Chicago Bulls squad.

It will not be until April, when they will get two looks at the Cavaliers in 13 days, that they will get another chance to face LeBron James and the team with the best record in the conference.

Perhaps the biggest reason that the Hawks are allowed to fly under the radar is that they have a coach and core group of players that seem to make their biggest statements on the court, rather than in interviews or commercials.

It starts at the top where head coach Mike Woodson has been given the time and patience to turn the Hawks into a contender.

After going 13-69 in his first season at the helm, the former Indiana University star and journeyman NBA player (five teams and career 14.0 scoring average over 11 seasons) has steadily made the Hawks a better team.

For years they had one of the youngest squads in the league, but those players are now starting to mature and see the fruits of their labor.

One noticeable advantage for the Hawks this season is that unlike many of their competitors, their starting lineup has been virtually intact.

Except for one game in December where Maurice Evans replaced Marvin Williams (out with the flu) in the starting lineup, the Hawks have put the same starting lineup on the floor for every game so far this season.

That has allowed them to bring one of their most explosive weapons, veteran guard Jamal Crawford, off the bench to provide instant offense.

Crawford, starting point guard Mike Bibby and leading scorer Joe Johnson provide the Hawks with a veteran nucleus to combine with some explosive young talent.

Johnson will be appearing in his fourth straight All-Star Game and is probably one of the most underappreciated superstars in a league of superstars.

Though no longer a top scorer, Mike Bibby is still a key floor general for the Hawks.

Though no longer a top scorer, Mike Bibby is still a key floor general for the Hawks.

Bibby has been a solid winner in both college and the NBA and though he is not scoring at a clip similar to earlier in his career, he still is a valuable contributor due to his ball distribution and leadership.

Crawford joined the Hawks this season, but rather than potentially being a disruptive force, has adjusted well to his role coming off the bench. He is the second leading scorer on the team with an average of 17.7 points per contest.

The young talent on this team could rival any roster in the NBA.

Third-year center Al Horford is averaging 13.5 points and 9.7 rebounds and will be making his All-Star Game debut.

Now in his sixth season, Josh Smith, who the Hawks drafted as a high school player in 2004, is now an established inside player. He is averaging 15 points and 8.5 rebounds this season and is a perfect complement to Horford.

Williams is a fifth year player from North Carolina that has also been groomed by the Hawks since being taken with the second overall selection in 2005. His scoring average is down slightly this season to 10.4 points per contest, but he remains a talented player and key member of the lineup for the Hawks.

The Hawks have had solid playoff runs in the past led by superstars including John Drew, Dan Roundfield, Dominique Wilkins, Doc Rivers, Kevin Willis and Steve Smith, but they have never been able to get past the other great teams in their conference to move to the grandest stage in the NBA.

Considering the great talent on the Cavaliers, Magic and Celtics, it won’t be easy for the Hawks this time around, but they may have just the mix of young and old needed to get over the hump and contend for their first NBA title.


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