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Uplifting experience

Hawks showed promise by stretching Celtics to seven

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / October 25, 2008
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There used to be lots of good seats available at Philips Arena in Atlanta. The only positive thing to talk about was the good ol' days, when Dominique Wilkins was dunking from above the rim.

But suddenly, with one strong playoff showing against the eventual NBA champion Celtics last season, everything changed for the Atlanta Hawks.

"It puts us in a different light in terms of expectations," said coach Mike Woodson. "We're still a young team. But I don't think people will take us real lightly anymore whether we are in Atlanta or on the road.

"We've been competitive the last couple of years. But taking Boston to seven games shows that we can compete on a high level."

Few thought the Hawks had a chance against the mighty Celtics.

The Hawks were the lowest playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. No postseason team had a worse record than Atlanta's 37-45 mark. Youthful Atlanta was also making its first playoff appearance since 1999.

To make matters worse, the Celtics dominated three regular-season games and easily won the first two playoff games at TD Banknorth Garden.

But back in Atlanta, everything changed as the Hawks won their three home games by playing an uptempo, athletic, and defensively suffocating brand of basketball. They were energized by their boisterous fans, who had been dormant for a long time. And when the Hawks pushed the series to a deciding seventh game, there was talk about Atlanta becoming just the fourth No. 8 seed in NBA history to upset a top seed.

But the Celtics responded in Game 7, hammering the Hawks, 99-65, at the Garden.

"Just the thought that we got into the playoffs was a gratifying part," Woodson said. "We got it together the last 20-22 games to get in. No one gave us a chance or thought we'd win one game. It shows in the playoffs that anything is possible.

"When we were in Boston, we were scared. Boston had a lot to do with that. But when we got home, we got momentum. It's not easy winning in the Boston Garden. The better team won."

Said Hawks forward Josh Smith, "Some teams think of us as a pushover. But for the most part, we gained respect. We had to earn it. This run can put Atlanta back on the map."

The Hawks' newfound momentum hit a bump in the offseason.

Atlanta did not have a selection on draft night, having traded the pick to acquire All-Star guard Joe Johnson. Forward Josh Childress signed a lucrative contract in Greece. And the Hawks were forced to re-sign Smith by matching a five-year, $58 million offer sheet he signed with Memphis.

The Hawks, however, added veteran help by signing swingman Maurice Evans and guard Ronald Murray. Veteran point guard Mike Bibby, a midseason acquisition who was sidelined by a thumb injury for much of last season, is healthy and will benefit from a full training camp with Atlanta. And with Smith, Johnson, All-Rookie selection Al Horford, and budding forward Marvin Williams, Woodson is confident the Hawks are better than they were at the end of last season.

"I like the way that we've grown," Woodson said. "Everyone is older. Bibby is a healthy Bibby. We are deeper than last year. Mo and Flip are veteran guys who know how to play and score. It helps a little bit from a locker room standpoint."

Smith and Woodson said they noticed strong enthusiasm from fans for the upcoming season.

"Just walking around [Atlanta] seeing the fans, they're ready," Smith said. "Everyone is excited. The city of Atlanta is excited."

The Hawks are now flying high, and although Woodson said, "Every team in the East has gotten better," Atlanta is focused on improving upon what it accomplished last season.

"I've been preaching all through training camp that what happened last year is behind us," Woodson said. "The fans expect more and they should. I don't want to add pressure to our team or me. When you push the No. 1 team to [Game] 7, people expect a lot.

"You don't want to go back. Once you taste the playoffs, you don't want to go [backward]. That's the furthest thing from my mind and the team's mind."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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