ATLANTA — Al Horford still remembers the thrilling atmosphere when the Hawks were at home during the 2008 playoffs.
The team was a huge underdog against the top-seeded Boston Celtics but took the series to the max by winning all three games in Atlanta — spurred on by raucous sellout crowds that caught everyone off guard with their intensity.
"Electric," said Horford, the Hawks' All-Star forward. "I've played in big college games. They were like a college crowd. It was such a rush being here. That year, I think the Celtics were a little taken aback and surprised by that."
This season, the home court has seemed more like a disadvantage to the Hawks. They had just 24 wins at Philips Arena, playing before thousands of empty seats most nights. More troubling, there were plenty of blowouts among the 17 losses — more, in fact, than any team with a winning record in NBA history.
"That's crazy, ain't it?" forward Marvin Williams said. "In the past, we've played really well at home and struggled at times at home. Well, we've become a better road team, a much better road team, but at home it's just been up and down this year."
New York (23-18) was the only playoff team to win fewer home games.
The Hawks know they've got to reverse that trend to take advantage of splitting the first two games in Orlando. Game 3 is Friday night.
"I wish I could put my finger on it," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said after practice Thursday. "I just think our guys have played with a little bit more sense of urgency on the road. I think they play on the road like their backs are against the wall. It's us against the world on the road."
Indeed, the Hawks have improved dramatically away from home, just missing out on a winning record (20-21) with a mark that was their best in a full season since 1997-98.
But, ohhhh, how they struggled at home, winning 10 fewer games at Philips Arena than a year ago. And some of those performances were downright ugly. A 41-point loss to New Orleans. A 34-point blowout by Philadelphia. A 33-point rout against Chicago. Two other defeats by at least 20 points.
Now, we get to the chicken-or-the-egg question.
The Hawks have never been one of the league's better-drawing teams, and attendance dipped this year to an average of less than 16,000 per game. Even those numbers — which ranked 22nd in the NBA — were clearly padded. Many nights, it appeared that less than 10,000 were actually in the seats. Things have gotten so bad the team actually put up a black curtain in the upper deck, cordoning off several sections of nosebleed seats that probably weren't going to be sold anyway.
So, did the drop-off in attendance lead an emotionally fragile team to tank some games? Or did the poor showings at Philips cause more fans to stay home?
"On the road, we're much more focused," Horford said. "At home, there were times we didn't necessarily feel like that we had that confidence from the crowd. But I think our crowd feeds off what we do. So, if we have some highlight plays and we get it going, I think the crowd really buys into that."
But, he had to concede, it's discouraging to play before so many empty seats, or to have your own crowd cheering for the opponent.
"I think some of the guys feel like we've reached the point where we're a good team, but we're not getting that support we need," Horford said. "I can understand that's a little frustrating. But I know there's some loyal Hawk fans out there."
That wasn't the case in last year's second-round playoff series against the Magic. Already staggering from two double-digit losses in Orlando, things turned downright nasty for the Hawks once they got back home.
On the way to taking the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history, the team was booed by its own crowd in Game 3 — prompting star guard Joe Johnson to say he "couldn't care less" if anyone showed up for the next contest. They did, and bombarded Johnson with more heckling every time he touched the ball.
Even though the team has already sold out Game 3 — only a few hundred standing-room tickets remain — Johnson wasn't ready to proclaim that everyone will be cheering for the Hawks. He remembers a 24-point loss to the Lakers back in February, which seemed more like a Los Angeles home game with so many fans rooting for Kobe Bryant and the defending NBA champions.
"I don't know what to expect," Johnson said. "We'll see."
The Hawks are promoting a "Dwight-Out" for next two games — encouraging all fans to wear white in hopes of rattling Magic star Dwight Howard.
Bring it on, said Howard.
The Atlanta native expects to feel the brunt of the crowd's wrath, even in his hometown, after averaging 39.5 points and 19 rebounds during the first two games of the series.
"I guess they make it a point, since I'm the hometown guy, to try to bug me the whole game," Howard said. "So I'm just going to not think about it and just focus on us."
Orlando's Ryan Anderson said it's important to silence the Atlanta fans — or even turn them against the Hawks, the way the Magic did a year ago.
"Obviously it's fun to shut a crowd up and that's something we can do," Anderson said. "I know last year in Atlanta, that's something that we did. And that can be an advantage, too, when you have the crowd going against a (home) team."
Horford wants a repeat of three years ago.
"We need our fans to pick it up to a new level," he said. "We need a Boston-Hawks atmosphere in here."