ATLANTA — After pulling up at Philips Arena in his white Hummer H2, Mike Bibby strolled past an admiring security guard, who wished him luck through the rest of the playoffs.
"We’re not supposed to talk to the players," she said as the Hawks point guard turned the corner, "but I can’t help myself."
The lovefest is occurring all over Atlanta. Talk radio stations were flooded with calls about the city’s long-ignored NBA team. Cars cruised along downtown streets with Hawks flags flapping from their windows.
Who knew they even made those?
"It’s long overdue, having playoff basketball here in Atlanta," coach Mike Woodson said Tuesday before boarding a flight to Boston for the next game in a series that was supposed to be over. "Now, they’re seeing it at its best. We’re the underdogs, but we’re competing with a great team."
The Hawks aren’t just competing. They’re all tied up in the best-of-seven series with a team that had the NBA’s best record, a team that finished 29 games ahead of Atlanta during the regular season.
It’s as if the Hawks grew up right before everyone’s eyes, though this has been a moment nine years in the making.
"We knew this day was going to come eventually," forward Josh Smith said. "It’s just good for the city of Atlanta to have a winning team. They’ve been crying out for a winning team for years. I think we can be that team on a year-to-year basis, making some noise in the playoffs."
The Hawks are certainly making noise this year after slipping into the playoffs with a 37-45 record. The 66-win Celtics were supposed to make short work of this series, especially when they won the first two games at home by an average of 21 points. But Atlanta rebounded with a pair of victories before packed houses at Philips Arena.
Sellout crowds. Playoff wins. The top sports story all over the country.
Can this possibly be the Hawks?
"It’s great for us to finally get a chance to play on national television, get a chance to really do something special," said Joe Johnson, who took the team on his back in Game 4, scoring 20 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter. "We’ve just got to validate these wins by staying humble, staying confident and working hard."
The Hawks were a perennial playoff team through most of the 1990s with a lineup that featured Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock and Dikembe Mutombo. But they fell off the map after an ill-advised attempt to reshape the roster with younger, quicker players.
Eventually, the Hawks had little choice except to go back to square one. Players with any value were traded away. The team put most of its focus on the draft, a tedious process that resulted in the worst season in franchise history, a 13-69 debacle four years ago.
With a few missteps along the way (drafting Shelden Williams at No. 5 overall, passing on Chris Paul), the Hawks assembled four of their top six players: starters Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford, along with super sub Josh Childress.
Childress is the oldest of the bunch, all of 24.
The Hawks filled the other spots in their still-thin playing rotation outside the draft. Johnson got a $70 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix that fractured Atlanta’s ownership group (the issue is still tied up in the courts). Then, just before this season’s trade deadline, the Hawks dealt four backup players to Sacramento for Bibby, giving the team its first legitimate point guard in years.
"When you look at the Hawks, you see how they drafted some younger players, made a trade, signed a free agent," said NBA commissioner David Stern, who attended Game 4. "You see that it is possible to put together a good team."
Now, they’re all even with the mighty Celtics — and actually believing they have a chance to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston, then the series returns to Atlanta on Friday.
"The biggest thing is guys are just playing freely," Marvin Williams said. "No one expected us to win any games."
If the Hawks can somehow get a win in Beantown, just imagine how fired up the A-T-L will be for Game 6.
"We definitely believe," Johnson said. "We’ve got momentum and confidence on our side right now. We know we’re going up to a hostile environment. We’ve just got to try to make the best of it. Some how, some way, we’ve got to find a way to get a win."