ATLANTA — The arena was packed with more than 20,000 screaming fans. The home guys were going basket-for-basket with the NBA’s best team.
In Atlanta, of all places.
Last spring, the Hawks provided a tantalizing glimpse of where they might — and we stress that word — might be headed during their first playoff appearance in nine years. They took eventual champion Boston to a full seven games, winning three thrilling games at Philips Arena, all of them played before raucous sellout crowds.
"Atlanta was an unbelievable place to play in the playoffs," forward Marvin Williams said. "Hopefully we can get more regular-season games like that."
Indeed, that is the challenge for the Hawks this season, to somehow bottle those three playoff performances and spread it out over a full season. They certainly showed the potential to compete with the league’s top teams; then again, they made the playoffs with only 37 wins and were blown out in all four games at Boston, never coming within 19 points of the team that went on to capture the championship.
"A lot of teams probably felt it was a fluke, us making the playoffs," forward Josh Smith said. "I feel like we have a lot to prove this season."
While wanting his team to savor the good feelings from its showing against the Celtics, coach Mike Woodson is eager to move on to the next level. A winning record during the regular season. Home-court advantage in the playoffs.
"Last season is last season. It’s something to build on, but it’s behind us now," Woodson said. "I’m sure the guys have a wonderful taste in their mouths, especially the guys who had never been to the playoffs. But I know what it feels like to win a title and, boy, it would be unbelievable if that ever happened with this team. In order to do that, we’ve got to put forth the time and effort ... make it happen. Nobody is going to give you the title. You have to earn it."
The Hawks return with essentially the same squad. Shockingly, they lost valuable sixth-man Josh Childress to a team in Greece, but they bolstered the bench by signing swingman Maurice Evans and combo guard Flip Murray.
Childress’ defection stunned many of his ex-teammates, who surely wondered if the botched negotiations were another troubling sign of a dysfunctional ownership group that wasn’t willing to spend the big bucks necessary to build a championship team.
The Hawks answered some of those concerns by matching Smith’s $58 million offer sheet from the Memphis Grizzlies, at least keeping the core of the team together. When they signed Evans and Murray, that assuaged the jittery holdovers even more.
"I’m not going to say that losing Chill was taking a step back, but I thought he was a key piece to our team," said Joe Johnson, the team’s leading scorer. "He did a lot of little things that don’t show up in the stat book. He was a great addition to our team coming off the bench. But the additions we made, they definitely make up for what we lost in Chill."
Johnson, Williams and Smith are part of a lineup that includes two other players who made big impacts in their Atlanta debuts.
Center Al Horford, runner-up for the NBA rookie of the year award, added some much-needed grit and showed signs of being a leader even as a rookie. Just as important, he brought a winning attitude after helping Florida take back-to-back NCAA championships.
Point guard Mike Bibby was added at the trade deadline, filling the team’s most long-standing weakness — someone to run the offense.
"We were a better team when Bibby came over, in terms of running and pushing the basketball and scoring points," Woodson said. "Our point production went up five points when Bibby came over."
Woodson might have saved his job with Atlanta’s performance in the playoffs. There were reports that general manager Billy Knight wanted to make a change during the season, but the owners overruled him. After the season, it was clear who had won the power struggle.
Knight quit and was replaced by longtime NBA executive Rick Sund.
Woodson got a new contract.
"I’ve always felt secure about my job," he insisted. "I made a commitment four years ago that if I couldn’t get them into the playoffs in four years, then I don’t deserve to be the coach here. I was able to get that accomplished thanks to the players. It was a nice summer for me in terms of being able to come back, my staff and I, to try to finish the job we started.
"We’ve got something special here," he said. "Now, we’ve really got to validate what we did in the playoffs."