There’s a part of me that still wonders if this is real. (I’ve lived in Atlanta since 1984, which explains a lot of it.) I keep looking at the Atlanta Hawks’ schedule and thinking, “OK, here’s where they’re going to lose,” but they don’t. They almost never lose anymore. Is this really possible?
They’re 19-2 since Thanksgiving. In December they won consecutive games against the Bulls, the Cavaliers, the Rockets, the Mavericks and the Clippers. They just completed the kind of Western swing that would yield a 1-2 record at best; they went 3-0, winning in Salt Lake City, in Portland and in L.A. against the Clippers on Monday.
They have the best record in the Eastern Conference. They hold the third-best record in the NBA. They’re beating the kind of teams they never used to beat, and they’re not just lucking out — they’re winning big. They’re the Atlanta Hawks. Is this really possible?
It is, because these Hawks have a splendid coach and are talented in a way that not many NBA teams aspire to be. Remember how we’d say, “The Hawks will never be a contender until they get a superstar?” Well, they don’t have a superstar but they’re darned sure a contender. They’ve gone the 2004 Detroit Pistons route — the one all but written off as an aberration — and have five really good starters, and their mesh has been superior to the thrown-together LeBron-Love-Irving Cavs, who were supposed to rule the East. (Granted, LeBron is hurting, but the Hawks routed Cleveland even when he wasn’t.)
Even if you’ve been tracking the Hawks’ season, it was still jarring to see them rated No. 1 in Marc Stein’s power rankings on ESPN — stunning because (according to Stein) it hadn’t happened since Lenny Wilkens’ first season as coach here in 1993-94, stunning mostly because these are the Hawks, the team we Atlantans love to ignore. But we can’t ignore the standings, and we can’t ignore the way these guys are playing. Yes, this is possible. Yes, these really are the Hawks.