ATLast?

DeMarco Williams

While skeptical fans around the country find it hard to believe the long-boring Hawks actually have what it takes to play into June, the team’s all-for-one mentality has the title-starved city going all in with the love.

America, the city of Atlanta doesn’t blame you for what’s happening right now. It knows you have no control over the airwaves. You have nothing to do with the NBA’s national TV scheduling. It knows that you simply watch the games that are aired and tweet about what you see. If it’s Pelicans-Suns on the docket that night, well, then, your timeline will just have to be filled with Markieff Morris comments.

It’s not your fault that you don’t see these Atlanta Hawks but on the rarest of occasions—as this issue went to press, the East-leading Hawks had but two games slated the last month of the regular season for ESPN or NBA TV; that’s as many as the lowly Orlando Magic. And even in those instances when they do get national love, it feels more like pity than smart programming meant to show off an über-efficient team that was 53-14 around St. Patrick’s Day.

Atlanta has nothing against Sports Illustrated either for doing a tri-cover “NBA Midseason Report” and not having the decency to include the Hawks as one of the three choices. The team understands that it doesn’t have a flashy guard or a coach who drops sound-byte gold every night. But at the same time, don’t 19-game winning streaks, undefeated Januarys and four All-Star Game selections still mean something?

If you’re a little slow with the nod, allow us to introduce you to a few folks with ATL ties, some of them Joe Everydays and others a wee bit more famous, who all echo the same sentiment: These underappreciated Atlanta Hawks are overdue for a long Playoff run. None of these passionate followers are upset about your reluctance to recognize the real, but they would like you to know that, starting now, you either find a spot on the bandwagon or you’re road kill on their road to the Finals.

March 9 isn’t the actual date that we realized things were different, but it’s as good of a time as any to express as much. The day was a typical Monday. The Sacramento Kings were in town, not exactly the marquee name to get Philips Arena all in a tizzy. Even without the headline-making opposition, the place had energy to it. When you looked up to the 300 and 400 sections, there were fans in nearly every seat. A season ago, those areas would be so desolate you could have a flag football tournament between the aisles. Tarp would cover the rows so things didn’t look so bleak when Memphis came.

March 9 proved something—it doesn’t matter if it’s the Kings or King James, the arena is going to rock and the home squad is going to rep. That night, the Hawks’ patent-pending spread-the-ball, fun-for-all game plan was on full display, too. The team had an NBA season-high 42 assists and knocked down a Philips Arena-record 20 three-pointers en route to eviscerating Sacramento, 130-105.

“They play at a very quick pace,” admits Kings coach George Karl after the contest. “Very seldom does your defense ever get in a comfort zone. And they shoot the ball. It’s almost like they get yelled at if they don’t shoot the three. They’re told, ‘If you’re open with the three ball, fire.’ They turn down good shots to get great shots. They have patience. No one wants to give them credit, but they’re a good defensive team. They get their hands in the game and create an offense from defense. Rebounding is an area that might be one of their weaknesses but I think you’re seeing a very special basketball team.”

But before the city had time to digest the quote or the victory, the Hawks were back in action, this time on the opposite end of a mile-high massacre just two days later in Denver. During the 13-point loss to the Nuggets, the team looked flat, almost disinterested on the boards. As Kenneth Faried came down with a rebound, a lethargic Atlanta frontcourt was just leaving its feet.

Every team has those kinds of nights. Only in Atlanta’s case this season, those anomalies have fueled haters’ flames. Twitter lights up with “So, here are the real Hawks” posts. Text messages load up on LOLs and laughing emojis. Where were these same trolls during the January streak? Hell, where were they last week?

“The dynamics of being an Atlanta fan are different from anywhere else,” begins Jamal Richardson, a self-described Hawks fanatic for all 36 of his years. “After a bad loss for a fan in Cleveland, they go to work, shake their heads at each other and that’s it. For me, when I go to work after a loss, it’s almost like I’m being interviewed—What happened to your boys? I don’t think that happens in any other city but ours because of the diversity here.”

He’s not exaggerating, either. Many longtime fans around town have similar stories. You have to defend your team after a loss. You have to explain your team after a win. It’s a wonder the city hasn’t needed professional therapy for all it has endured.

Unsympathetic transplants are an issue, but they’re not the only one. Atlanta’s done a lot of the damage to itself. The city’s teams, be them college or pro, haven’t won a championship in a major sport since the Braves’ spirited World Series run in 1995. (But we see you, Atlanta Silverbacks, 2013 North American Soccer League spring season champs!) Since the mid-’90s, there have been a couple of close calls and almost-theres, but no trophies. Blame Eugene Robinson, Mark Richt, Paul Hewitt and whomever else you want for the misfortunes. Just don’t blame a ticker-tape parade for midday traffic jams because there haven’t been any ticker-tape parades.

al horford

When you’ve experienced so much sorrow for so long, it numbs you. You start to doubt. Maybe you aren’t on TNT for a reason. Maybe having every starter named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January isn’t that big a deal. Have so many humdrum seasons and a 12-1 home record against the West won’t get the juices flowing nearly as much as it should.

“Being an Atlanta sports fan in general, I always have my trepidation,” says Eli Kirshtein, an SEC-loving sports nut who also happens to be a Top Chef alum and owner of one of Atlanta’s buzziest new restaurants, The Luminary. “The fact of the matter is that we rarely get it done. With the Falcons [in 2013], they were playing really well but they had a bad defense. They were squeaking by. But the Hawks are playing great basketball. They’re winning against great teams. It makes it hard for anybody to not like it.” While we can’t say definitively, that seems to be the universal mindset around the metro Atlanta area—cautious optimism.

One of the biggest sources of concern from outsiders is the Hawks’ supposed lack of star power. Looking at the NBA Champions since 2000, only twice has the winner’s leading scorer averaged under 20 points a night—last year with the San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker, 16.7ppg) and the ’08 Celtics (Paul Pierce, 19.6). Atlanta gets the concern, but responds with three players—Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague—who score over 15. Toss in the more-than-capable trio of Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and reserve spark plug Dennis Schröder and you understand why all the talk irks the front office.

“What’s the definition of your superstar?” asks Hawks vice president of basketball Dominique Wilkins. “Guys who do high-wire acts and ohhh and ahhh the crowd? That doesn’t make you a superstar. It’s the efficiency and consistency within a player that makes him a star.”

Though head coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks have that in spades, most post-season pundits still have the Cleveland Cavaliers coming out of the East. For the sake of brevity, we’ll ignore the fact that third-string Atlanta point guard Shelvin Mack has more Playoff experience than Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combined. All you and everybody else see, and it is understandable, is LeBron James. Should these two teams square off in the Eastern Conference Finals, he’ll single-handedly will Cleveland to the series win, right?

Hardly. A loaded Cavs team visited Atlanta in early March. They left 106-97 losers in a game that had an atmosphere as electric as any playoff game that ESPN could hope for in late April. (Not that you would know any of this, seeing as how the match-up only garnered regional TV coverage.) The win was Atlanta’s third in four meetings against Cleveland.

Locals are intrigued by a potential post-season run-in. “I think we stand  a chance at beating them [in the  Playoffs] even without a superstar,” says Killer Mike, proud A-town stomper and one-half of the critically acclaimed rap duo Run the Jewels. “A sound team and superb play can win the day. It will help if LeBron ain’t 100 percent healthy, too. It will be a dog fight like the [Hawks and Boston Celtics were in the] ’80s. I wanna see a playoff like that.”

“Their bigs do a great job of rim running,” tells Kyrie Irving, who chipped in 20 points in the losing effort on March 6. “And Kyle draws so much attention himself. You just gotta give them credit. We take our lessons and move on. That’s a good team down there. Gotta give respect.”

“I think we’ve played some good basketball,” admits Horford, who anchored the defining triumph over a Cavs squad that was in the midst of a 20-4 stretch. “It definitely feels good to get a win on this type of stage. They had their whole team and we had our whole team. We just went and were able to play a great game.”

bud

Statement wins are one thing. Statement seasons are something else. If the latter is ever going to happen in Georgia, the hoops heavens couldn’t align any better in 2015: The Hawks’ core has remained relatively healthy; a one-time threat in the East, the Toronto Raptors, has cooled; the summer controversy with general manager Danny Ferry has calmed.

“Atlanta might not have been the ideal sports city for everybody,” says Shoni Schimmel, a Hawks admirer who also happens to be a budding star on the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA’s 2014 All-Star Game MVP. “But with the Hawks doing their thing and the Dream coming up, I think we’re starting to put ourselves more on the map.”

Should the Atlanta Hawks keep defying the doubters and get past the Cavs, Bulls and everyone else in the East, they’ll make their first NBA Finals appearance since the franchise moved from St. Louis in 1961. Fifty-four years is a long time to come up with some awfully compelling reasons why it won’t happen. The title-starved city of Atlanta only needs one to believe that it could.

DeMarco Williams is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.

Images via Getty