For just under a decade, the status quo for Atlanta’s basketball franchise has been what is known in the computer world as “sleep mode” — the state of being in which a machine idly wastes away at less than full capacity, with a lazy screen saver image occasionally drifting across the monitor’s dim void.
The team’s track record over the past nine seasons is representative of a lengthy and decidedly unsatisfying slumber. With no winning seasons since 1998-99 and a combined record of 255-483 during that time, the Hawks have spent the majority of the past decade as one of the NBA’s most inept and unproductive franchises.
But over the span of the last 11 months, Atlanta has begun to fight its longstanding curse of inertia. And through a series of unanticipated jumpstarts, awakenings and revelations, the 39-28 Hawks have quietly established themselves as a legitimate factor in the Eastern Conference. Here’s a look at the key elements of their emergence:
Stage 1: The Warning Shot
You’ve heard about this one before, but as the ignition to the entire process, its importance can’t be overstated. Last spring, the 37-45 Hawks secured the eighth seed in the playoffs and ascended high above nonexistent expectations by taking the 66-16 top-seeded and eventual NBA champion Celtics to a decisive seventh game.
Though they lost Game 7 in demoralizing fashion (a crushing 99-65 defeat in Boston), taking the Celtics to the brink created a new basketball life force in Atlanta. In the wake of that inspired first-round run, the Hawks came away with a sustainable jolt of confidence to propel them through the offseason and beyond, and in the process of discovering a long-lost swagger, they inadvertently established a considerable home-court advantage (more on that in a moment).
Stage 2: The Mindset
It's a relatively well-known fact that Hawks coach Mike Woodson’s offensive sets are about as imaginative as a computer screen saver featuring a couple of monochromatic squares bouncing off the fringes of the monitor.
A lesser-known fact about Woodson’s offense is that its lack of creativity has had the unforeseen benefit of helping to turn shooting guard Joe Johnson into one of the most cutthroat scorers in the league.
Thanks in large part to his constant isolation at the top of the key or on the wing with no clear directive from his coach other than “OK, Joe, go score,” the team’s focal point has adopted the mindset that no one in the league can stop him. And when he has his entire arsenal of short-range floaters and long-distance, pull-up 3-pointers on target, Johnson is undoubtedly among the league’s most difficult players to contain.
The only problem is that there are times that a stagnant and unpredictable offense becomes, well, stagnant and unpredictable. So when Johnson and the Hawks are at their best, it is despite the limitations of their offense, not because of its strengths. And if there’s a glaring weakness to this team’s attack, it is the coach’s inability to make scoring easier for his players. Johnson is good enough to overcome that with surprising frequency, but even the team’s best player isn’t immune to the offense’s inevitable lulls.
Stage 3: The Meaning of Home Turf
During the 2008 playoffs, Atlanta’s Phillips Arena suddenly and unexpectedly became the single-most deafening venue in the NBA, a factor that played a sizable role in the Hawks’ winning all three games over the Celtics in Atlanta.
Since that time, the decibel level at Phillips has dropped considerably (remember, the status quo in Atlanta all these years has been sleep mode), but the Hawks still employ a decided home-court advantage. Their 39-28 record (fourth best in the East) includes a 25-7 mark at home, and a 7-1 record at Phillips since Feb. 10.
Stage 4: The Enigma Awakens (Again)
For Hawks power forward Josh Smith — the explosive 23-year-old with limitless upside but a known penchant for sleepwalking — a lack of intensity has been the clearest factor conspiring to keep him from being a consistently dominant force in the paint.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
But on March 6, a halftime dust-up between Smith and Woodson (and subsequent benching of Smith for the second half) helped re-ignite Smith’s competitive intensity. In the five games since that altercation — far from the first disagreement between Woodson and Smith in recent years — the Hawks power forward has averaged 16.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. And in part because of Smith’s rejuvenated play, the Hawks won all five games (including wins over Detroit, Utah, New Orleans and Portland).
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