The Hawks open the playoffs Sunday against Brooklyn. It’s a team they should beat. It’s a team they have beaten — four times this season, by point margins of 23, 11, 32 and 3 (with Paul Millsap out and on the second day of a back-to-back).
The Hawks have players. The Nets have contracts. The Hawks had a plan three years ago, and it’s working. The Nets had a plan three years ago, and they’ve already blown it up. They tried to buy a championship, and the whole thing exploded like an over-inflated water balloon.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett keyed championship runs in Boston and hoped to do the same with the Nets. Didn't work. Pierce, now with Washington, told ESPN's Jackie MacMullen: "It was just the guys' attitudes there. It wasn't like we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys. They were vets who didn't want to play and didn't want to practice. I was looking around saying, 'What's this?'"
He also had less than wonderful things to say about Deron Williams (melts in New York media spotlight) and Joe Johnson (he’s a reluctant leader).
I’m guessing he won’t be back for alumni night.
But in terms of pure talent, the Nets are pretty good with Williams, Johnson and Brook Lopez in the starting lineup and Thaddeus Young and Jarrett Jack off the bench. They’re certainly good enough to win a playoff series.
Further, this is Atlanta: The city with one major pro sports title (Braves, 1995) in 50 years. This is the Hawks, who never have made it past the second round of the playoffs.
In short, they’re guilty until proved innocent.
That said, imagine the possibilities if the Hawks’ regular-season success carries over to the postseason.They went 14-2 in December, 17-0 in January and didn’t hit double-digits in losses until the second week of February, after a 42-9 start. (Point of reference: Last season, they started 9-10.)
They had a winning record this season against every team in the Eastern Conference except Toronto (1-3) — and, sorry, but I’m guessing LeBron James and lesser Clevelanders will be bigger obstacles.
They pass, they defend, they have no ego issues. They are watchable.
“There’s more excitement now for this team than I’ve seen in while,” Barry said. “In (1996-97) we won 56 games and beat Chicago (in the second game) in the second round of playoffs, but people were still not believing. There’s more buzz now.”
The Hawks have lost defender Thabo Sefolosha to a broken leg in a late-night incident with New York police, the specifics of which remain in dispute. Sefolosha was an important player. So, obviously, is Millsap, who missed five games with a shoulder injury before returning in the season finale. But the Hawks’ strength all season has been not relying on one player.
“They’re unselfish,” Barry said. “It’s really a page out of San Antonio’s book. It’s not an isolation team. When you have different guys leading you every night, it makes it tough for opponents to defend you.”
It’s a team good enough to win at least two rounds. It’s a team good enough to go to the NBA Finals. Now it’s about bucking history.