Links: Hell Freezes Over

by Lang Whitaker

Last Friday night at the Hawks/Knicks game here in NYC, Hawks TV analyst Steve Smith walked up to me, punched me surprisingly hard on the shoulder, and asked me, “So, do you think we’re going to make the Playoffs?”

I didn’t really answer his question because I was still sort of shocked from being punched. Also, I didn’t want to answer the question, because I was terrified of jinxing anything. My Atlanta Hawks have been flirting with making the Playoffs for the first time in forever over the last few months, and I did not want to mention the “P” word, even to Steve Smith.

Maybe I shouldn’t have worried so much. Last night the Hawks locked up the final Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, courtesy of a loss by the Pacers. (Thank goodness Donnie Walsh put together such a powerhouse!) I was walking home from the Knicks/Celtics game and my Sidekick started buzzing and beeping, as almost everyone I know hit me up to congratulate me on the Hawks making the Playoffs.

And hey, I’m a realist. I know the Hawks barely qualified, that they have to play the NBA’s best team in round one. But for me and many Hawks fans, just making the Playoffs is like winning the Finals.

Did you know the Hawks haven’t advanced past the second round of the NBA Playoffs since Dwight Eisenhower was the President of the United States?

That’s right, it was in 1961 that the St. Louis Hawks lost in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. “Moon River” was the top song in America, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, the world has changed drastically. The Hawks, not so much.

The last time the Atlanta Hawks even qualified for the NBA Playoffs, I hadn’t even met the woman I’ve now been with for nine years. The year was 1999, and the NBA players and owners had been beefing for a while. After missing nearly half of the season, the League and the players came to a consensus on the Collective Bargaining Agreement and slapped together a demi-season, a 50-game sprint leading up to the NBA Playoffs. The Hawks finished 31-19, led by Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock and Dikembe Mutombo. In the first round of the Playoffs, the Hawks knocked off Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse and the Pistons. And then the Hawks fell to the Knicks in round two. (And the Knicks went on to the NBA Finals.)

Previous to that trip, the Hawks had been to the Playoffs for 18 of the previous 22 seasons. I can’t remember being a Hawks fan when they weren’t at the very least a Playoff contender. We were always good, occasionally really good, but we were never great.

After we lost to the Knicks, Pete Babcock, the GM of the Hawks in the ’90s, decided it was time to try and make the team great. His remedy for that was to trade the solid Steve Smith to Portland for a wildly talented (and wildly troubled) guy named JR Rider. He also traded Mookie Blaylock to Golden State for a Draft pick that became Jason Terry. These were the new Hawks, a team that would be able to push the tempo and be the Suns before the Suns existed. Then-Hawks president Stan Kasten said in Sports Illustrated, “This is the most important year in the history of the franchise.”

The Hawks then went 28-54 and finished toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Oh, and JR Rider got thrown off the team halfway through the year and accused Dikembe Mutombo of ratting him out for smoking weed on team road trips. So there was that, too.

Since that fiasco, the Hawks briefly tried to make do, trading for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and bringing in Lon Kruger to coach. Kruger got fired and Terry Stotts was hired, and Stotts managed to win just enough games to keep the Hawks from having a chance to get Dwight Howard. The team was sold, Babcock was jettisoned and before we knew what had happened, the Hawks were “rebuilding.”

I almost prefer to think of it as “building,” because “rebuilding” implies that we were simply remaking something that previously existed, and a team with guys like Chris Crawford as key rotation members isn’t really worth fixing. “Rebuilding” is also frequently a code word for a team that isn’t very good, knows they aren’t very good, but wants to continue to have their fans support them while they flirt with obscurity.

But the Hawks never really sunk that low. Even when the team won a whopping 13 games four seasons go, we were slowly adding guys, letting them learn how to play, expanding our base of players, getting incrementally better and better.

And now we’re in the Playoffs.

The key to the whole thing has been Joe Johnson. The dude abides. He comes to play every night, he can shoot the lights out, he passes to the open guys (except for Zaza) and he basically has carried this franchise for the last three years. Check his game log over the last two months (and check the minutes, also). We would not be in the Playoffs were it not for Joe Johnson. (So there, Steve Belkin.)

Last season, as the Warriors romped through the first round of the Playoffs and got everyone in Oakland excited, I wrote that as fun as the Warriors run had been, they were clearly playing for the now as opposed to the long term. Sure, they beat Dallas and provided a charge of energy for their fans, but this year they’re right back on the outside looking in.

I do not expect the Hawks to pull off anything similar against Boston. Partly because Boston is better than Dallas last season, but mostly because the Hawks aren’t ready yet. We’re still a year or so away from having the experience and guile needed to win back-to-back regular season games, much less Playoff games. Maybe we can sneak up and win one game here or there, but my expectations are low.

Still, my spirits are high. WE’RE IN THE PLAYOFFS!!!!!

Now, you might say that the Hawks are still way under .500. You might say that if the Hawks were in the West they wouldn’t be able to even smell the Playoffs. And you wold be correct. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Hawks knew they had to finish this season as one of the eight best teams in the Eastern Conference. And they pulled it off. We’re not going to win a Championship, but we’re closer to that ultimate goal than we’ve been in a decade. And that feels better than you could ever understand.

And as an anonymous reader emailed me:

Do you think that Hawk attacking that girl in Boston was an omen?

I sure hope so. Think we can teach him to take a swipe at KG?