If you’re among those who saw the Hawks get boat-raced in the second half of Game 2 and felt moved to mutter, “Same old Hawks,” you should curb that urge to bail out.
If you’re someone who stopped watching this team a while ago because you grew weary of seeing the Same Old Hawks lose the Same Old Way, now’s the time to venture another peek.
These are demonstrably not the Same Old Hawks. They’re not playing at cross-purposes. They know the difference between a good shot (a Kyle Korver 3-pointer) and a lousy one (a Josh Smith 3-pointer). You can watch them work and not want to scream in agony. You can watch them and, if you care about basketball, you’ll want to watch them again.
This isn’t to say they’re anywhere near a great team, though on their good nights they’re apt to up and beat anybody. This isn’t to say they’ll trump the Indiana Pacers over a full series, though I continue to like their chances. This is to say that, five years from now, we could recall this spring as the time a roundly unloved Atlanta team recaught our eye, kind of like the Braves in 1991.
The Hawks occupy a curious place in our sporting landscape. They’ve made the playoffs seven years running, which neither the current Braves nor the current Falcons have done, but finding an Atlantan who’ll admit to being a Hawks fan is as difficult as locating a Chick-fil-A in Montana. The Hawks are the team we love to scorn, and through the years we’ve been given cause. But to ignore the Hawks in 2014 because Billy Knight bungled a draft nearly a decade ago is akin to ripping the 21st century Braves because Nick Esasky got vertigo.
Under general manager Danny Ferry, these Hawks haven’t put a foot wrong. They haven’t landed their long-sought superstar, but they’ve built a competitive and cohesive roster. There’s a design to everything this team does. (For example, Ferry doesn’t sign players who can’t shoot.) I can’t make you like the Hawks, but I can attest that watching this team is rewarding in a way that watching no Hawks team of the past 30 years has been.
The ‘Nique-Doc-Spud-Tree crew of the late ‘80s was more entertaining, but that high-bounding bunch ultimately pumped us up to let us down. Lest we forget, that team saw the biggest shot of its biggest game (Game 6 against Boston in 1988) fall not to a real scorer but to sub forward Cliff Levingston, whose touch was such that his nickname was “House” — because he hoisted enough bricks to build one.
During time, the Hawks have been gifted, but not especially clever. (Again we reference Josh Smith, who couldn’t stop himself from trying those treys.) This team is clever, but not especially gifted, which makes for a pleasant change. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, imported from San Antonio by Ferry, there’s little chance a big shot will fall to someone incapable of making it. The new Hawks always get a clean look off an inbounds set. Even when the 3-pointers stopped dropping in the second half of Game 2, the bulk of them were open shots.
One word of caution: If you can bring yourself to check out these Hawks, don’t expect to discover a cast of cuddly care bears. These guys aren’t bubbly. Only a few — Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Elton Brand — stray beyond the cliched public utterance, and a Budenholzer media briefing is where paint goes to dry. He says next to nothing and acts as if he’s irked he has to say anything at all, which is the way his mentor, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, has conducted himself for decades.
As role models go, there are worse. Popovich has four championship rings, has been named NBA coach of the year three times and has created the smoothest-running organization in the industry. Ask the Hawks’ Round 1 opponent if harmony is an overrated concept.
ESPN reported Wednesday that according to sources, Indiana’s Frank Vogel is coaching for his job. One day earlier, Yahoo Sports reported that Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner of the Pacers engaged in fisticuffs during a practice before the series began, which might or might not explain that elephant egg their team laid in Game 1.
By way of blissful contrast, the Hawks have no such issues. They believe in their coach and his method. They sense they’re onto something, even if the ultimate payoff is apt to take a few years more. They have nothing in common with the Hawks we had come to know and not much like.
If you give these Hawks a chance, they might just grow on you. If you tune in now, you might even see them eliminate the East’s No. 1 seed.
©2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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