What happens after you contend against a contender? What good does it do to push a team to the brink if you eventually succumb? Can a playoff loss be a springboard to greatness?
Two years ago, the Atlanta Hawks gave the Boston Celtics everything they could handle in a first-round series. Tempers flared, and play was fierce. Mike Bibby said the Celtics fans were fair-weather, and had hopped on the bandwagon. At the time, Kevin Garnett said, “If I was back in my younger days I probably would have said something, but I learned. Let your play do your talking.” But Garnett never lets his play speak alone, and neither team would during the series.
Al Horford taunted Paul Pierce after a jumper, and Pierce responded with a gang sign — or ‘B’, or whatever symbol he made. Marvin Williams decked Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Garnett leveled Zaza Pachulia. It was a 1 vs. 8 matchup, but the Hawks played like equals with nothing to lose. After a 34-point, game seven drubbing sent Atlanta home fishing for the summer, they were dismissed with pride. They hadn’t won, but they’d proven to themselves they belonged in the postseason and, to a young team searching for an identity, that was almost as important as advancing to the second round.
Two years later, the Hawks are looking for more. Sick of early-round exits, they are now borderline title contenders. Not quite favorites, or even in the select group of two or three favorites, but in the conversation.
And they own the Celtics. Though the C’s — by way of the miracle that is the NBA division rule — still hold the tiebreaker between the two teams, the Hawks swept them four games during the regular season. Young, brash, and athletic, just like they were two seasons ago, the Hawks have finally added the next piece to the puzzle — experience.
“(Losing to Boston in 2008) put us right in the position where we are today,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday. “When we lost Game 7, after learning how to play playoff basketball, it left a sick feeling in all of our stomachs that summer because we knew that we pushed the best team in basketball to the max, but we just couldn’t get it done. Then, coming back into last season, these guys were hungry. Once you taste it, you don’t want to go the other way. (Since then) we’ve been playing basketball looking ahead and that’s how you build your team.”
So Boston created the monster that now preys on the C’s old, aging blood. Terrific news. That tough 2008 series wasn’t only a confidence booster. It screamed to the NBA with a megaphone, “HAWKS HAVE NEXT!”
“The fans of Atlanta weren’t really following us (in 2008) and then it was, ‘Hey, this team might have some potential,’ ” said Zaza Pachulia. “Since that time we’ve been going forward and forward. This team is still going up.”
After playing the Celtics, the Hawks hadn’t arrived yet but there could be no questioning they were on the rise. And they loved their first taste of playoff basketball.
“There’s a different intensity (in the playoffs),” said Pachulia. “There’s harder fouls, which is so much fun. I like it because it’s like real basketball. During the season you play one game and move on. But in the playoffs, one possession might beat you and send you to vacation. It’s so much fun that you want to stay there. So you make sure you do everything the right way.”
But the Hawks still haven’t done everything the right way. Not yet. They have become a team to reckon with, but still haven’t beaten an elite team in the postseason. The 2008 loss to the Celtics was followed by last season’s sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving the Hawks with still more to prove. With Jamal Crawford joining the same nucleus Boston saw two seasons ago, this could be the year they take the next step.
“You’ve got to get in (the playoffs) first,” said Woodson. “Then anything is possible.”
But there’s one caveat.
“The experience we get, we’ve got to use it,” said Pachulia.
And use it at the right time. Playoff time.