ATLANTA — For the first time since 1999, the Atlanta Hawks are headed to the NBA playoffs.
The Hawks clinched the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference when the Indiana Pacers, the only other team with a mathematical chance, lost at Washington 117-110 Monday night. The league’s longest playoff drought ended with Atlanta enjoying an off day.
"It’s huge for our franchise, when you talk about a young team coming together," fourth-year coach Mike Woodson said. "It’s huge for the guys that have put in their time and worked hard. We’ve worked hard to overcome some things as a unit to get this team where it needs to be."
Atlanta’s last playoff appearance came during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when the team finished second in the Central Division with a lineup that featured Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith.
The Hawks defeated Detroit in the opening round, but were swept in four straight games by the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Now in the Southeast Division, the Hawks (37-43) made it back to the postseason largely because of a down year in the East. Even if they win their last two games, they’ll still finish four games below .500.
Still, the playoffs are a major step forward for a franchise that decided to rebuild after its loss to the Knicks and wound up needing nearly a decade to get it right.
Along the way, there have been some embarrassing missteps, such as the trade for Isaiah Rider (who didn’t even make it through the season before he was cut), a playoff guarantee that fell far short, a dismal 13-win campaign in Woodson’s rookie season as coach and a struggle over ownership that is still tied up in the courts.
"It’s exciting to have clinched a playoff spot, but there is still work to be done," forward Josh Childress said. "Being here for my fourth year, and going through some of those rough times we went through, it feels great to have made it and to get a taste of what playoff basketball is like."
The Hawks better enjoy it while they can.
They will be huge underdogs in the opening round against the Boston Celtics, who have the league’s best record (64-16 before Monday night’s game at New York) and kept Atlanta from clinching a playoff berth at home over the weekend, beating the Hawks 99-89.
"It’s a great feeling, but we still have to worry about ourselves right now," said Joe Johnson, the team’s leading scorer. "We have to handle our business for these last two games to get ready for the playoffs. Just because we’re in doesn’t mean we can relax."