ATLANTA (AP) They won 60 games, which is the accepted NBA standard of greatness. They blew away everyone else in the Eastern Conference – including you, LeBron James.
Yet, there’s hardly anyone outside Atlanta who believes the Hawks will make it to the NBA Finals, much less capture a championship.
They are the Rodney Dangerfields of these most unusual playoffs.
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”No matter what we do, there’s probably going to be people who don’t believe in us,” Hawks guard Kyle Korver conceded Friday.
They’re not alone.
Golden State went 67-15 in the loaded Western Conference, a record bested or matched by only 10 teams in NBA history. Of those that previously accomplished the feat, eight went on to capture the title, which would normally lead us to believe that the Warriors are a heavy favorite.
”I think this is their best opportunity to get to the Western Conference finals,” said Kenny Smith, the former player and now TNT analyst. ”I’ll leave it there. After that, there are too many variables.”
If that qualifies as a lack of respect for the Warriors, then it’s fair to say the Hawks are getting no love at all. Never mind they finished a whopping seven games ahead of James and the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, even while essentially taking the final month of the season off to get rested for the postseason.
Smith’s TNT partner, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, was blunt in his assessment of Atlanta’s side of the playoff bracket.
”I think Cleveland and Chicago are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference,” Sir Charles surmised. ”When they play in the second round, that’s going to be the real Eastern Conference finals.”
He went on to say he thought the Cavaliers would win the East, then beat Golden State in the finals – though he was quick to add he wasn’t sure ”if the Warriors can beat the Spurs or even Portland, Memphis or the Clippers.”
There was no mention at all of the Hawks at all when Barkley ripped off his list of potential title contenders.
At Philips Arena, where the Hawks practiced in preparation for Game 1 Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets, there was a quiet determination to prove the skeptics wrong. Center Al Horford, though, understands why people would be reluctant to pencil Atlanta into the final series.
This is a team without an established star, even though four of the five starters were picked for the All-Star Game. This is an organization that has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1968. This is a franchise that won its lone NBA title during the Eisenhower administration, while known as the St. Louis Hawks.
”How can you go against Cleveland and a team with LeBron James?” Horford said. ”In people’s eyes, you usually go with history. We’ll just play our game and see how it goes.”
While it’s fashionable to brush off two teams that were clearly the best in the league during the regular season, let’s go over a few reasons why they might be the last two standing.
SPLASH BROTHERS: The Warriors have the game’s most dynamic duo, guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is probably the league’s MVP – well, either him or Houston’s James Harden – while Thompson scored an NBA-record 37 points in a single QUARTER. In the playoffs, when everyone toughens up defensively and the referees tend to swallow their whistles, it’s good to have a go-to scoring option. Golden State has two.
THE HAWKS COLLECTIVE: Following in the footsteps of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who used a team approach to rout James and the rest of Miami’s Big Three in last year’s finals, Atlanta is again trying to prove the sum of the parts can outshine individual greatness. It’s a still-novel approach in a star-driven league, but the Hawks have taken it to new levels with five starters averaging between 12.1 and 16.7 points a game. Plus, they might have the deepest bench in the league, even though Thabo Sefolosha is out for the year with a season-ending injury sustained during his arrest by New York City police.
SIDELINE STRENGTHS: Golden State’s Steve Kerr is a coaching rookie; Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer has been a head coach for only two seasons. While that would seemingly put them at a disadvantage against more seasoned coaches such as Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau, Kerr and Budenholzer were both tutored by the best in the business, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer earns extra points for keeping the Hawks together after a tumultuous offseason in which racially charged comments forced owner Bruce Levenson to put the team up for sale and general manager Danny Ferry to take an indefinite leave of absence that lasted all season.
TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING: Maybe the regular season was just a precursor of a much-needed shift in the league’s power structure. Over the past three decades, the championships have been hoarded by just eight teams. No other major U.S. professional league has shown such a lack of parity. It’s past time for the NBA to start spreading the wealth a bit.
This could be the start.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963