The history of the Atlanta Hawks is strewn with what-ifs. What if they’d kept Julius Erving, who played three exhibition games for them in 1972 before a judge ordered him back to the old ABA? What if they hadn’t traded Pete Maravich? What if Dominique Wilkins, as opposed to Cliff Levingston, had taken the last shot in Game 6 against Boston? What if — stop me if you’ve heard this one — they’d drafted Chris Paul?
Today we have a new one. What if the Hawks had closed out the Indiana Pacers in six games? Would they be sitting where the Pacers are — one game from the Eastern Conference finals?
The Atlanta Hawks have never won two playoff series in any year, nor have they ever reached the Eastern finals.(They did reach the conference finals in 1969 and 1970, when they were based in the West, but it took only one series win to get there. They lost in five games to the Lakers in 1969 and were swept in 1970. Game 1 of the latter series, played in Alexander Memorial Coliseum, remains a sore point in Hawks history. The Lakers of West, Baylor and Wilt shot 60 free throws to the Hawks’ 32. The Lakers won 119-115.)
The latest band of Hawks led the top-seeded Pacers by five points with three minutes remaining in Game 6 at Philips Arena. Had they won that night — or two nights later in Indianapolis, where they were routed — they’d have faced fifth-seeded Washington in Round 2. The Wizards had upset the Chicago Bulls, against whom the Hawks went 0-4 in the regular season. (Not that the Hawks were dominant against Washington, having gone 1-3 with the victory coming in overtime.)
The Hawks got a favorable Round 1 matchup because their spread-the-floor style rendered center Roy Hibbert, the hub of Indiana’s defense, inoperative. In Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, the Bulls have more mobile big men. They wouldn’t have had the same issues defending the Hawks’ perimeter shooters the Pacers did. The Wizards aren’t as good defensively as either Indiana or Chicago, but their guards — John Wall and Bradley Beal — would have hurt the Hawks in a way the Pacers’ George Hill and Lance Stephenson did not.
I don’t know if the Hawks would have beaten the Wizards. (I’m reasonably certain they’d have lost to the Bulls.) That Indiana surged from 19 points down Sunday night to beat Washington and take a 3-1 series lead tells us little about how a Hawks-Wizards series might have gone. Hibbert did nothing against the Hawks over the first six games; the Wizards’ Nene and Marcin Gortat would surely have made the Hawks work harder underneath.
The longer Round 1 went, the more we saw why the Hawks were a No. 8 seed. The 3-pointers they made early in the series stopped dropping — they missed 59 of 79 treys over the final two games — and they had nowhere else to turn. The guess here is that Washington’s quickness would ultimately have undone the Hawks, who apart from Jeff Teague aren’t especially quick, but we’ll never know. Yet another what-if.
Oh, and before you ask: The Hawks would have stood no chance against Miami — this assumes the Heat will beat Brooklyn — had they reached the conference finals. They’d have done well to win a game.