Sunday, April 27, 2008
I was all ready to proclaim yesterday as Black Saturday for the Atlanta pro sports teams. The Falcons did what we all feared they would do, picking a guy (Matt Ryan) to be the "face of the franchise" as opposed to a guy (Glenn Dorsey) who would accomplish that oh-so conventional goal of making the team better. The Braves dropped to 0-1,000,000 in one-run games with a loss to the Mets. All that was necessary to complete the trifecta was the Celtics walking over the Hawks in the local basketball collective's first home game in nine years. How many times have we ever got to say that the Hawks were the saving grace of the local teams?
It will be hard for me to put into words how fantastic last night was. Philips Arena was packed and the number of Celtics fans was not excessive. There were plenty of specks of green in the arena, but the crowd was at least 90% Hawks fans. This was not the NLDS against the Cubs. The crowd was into the game from the word go. It was, if you'll excuse me an incredibly obvious cliche, a true playoff atmosphere. The crowd was egging on the players and vice versa. After the game, fans were spontaneously screaming and chanting on the concourses and escalators as they were leaving the game. Since when did Hawks fans cheer without being told to do so by Ryan Cameron? Indigenous excitement? This was a proud night for Atlanta sports fans.
Of course, it helps to have a great performance from the team. In that respect, we have to start by showering praise on Josh Smith. Last night was his "Hello, America" moment. I suspect that most casual NBA fans around the country have seen Smith in the dunk contest in Denver, on game highlights, and maybe in a game against their favorite team. On a national stage for one of the first times, Smith played his best game in a Hawks uniform. He poured in 27 points, including five momentum-generating dunks and three three-pointers. If Smith shot like that from the outside on a consistent basis, he'd be one of the top 15 players in the league. Then again, if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle.
Al Horford also deserves mention for his performance last night. His line of 17 points and 14 rebounds doesn't quite do justice to his performance. He battled gamely inside and gave the Hawks an inside presence that they desperately needed. He worked successfully with Josh Smith to fire up the crowd, culminating his performance with a clinching jumper and taunting of a fallen Paul Pierce. OK, I probably shouldn't be endorsing the provocation of a 67-win team, but this Hawks team is young and needs the confidence that Horford's bravado generates. What's the worst that happens from Horford letting Pierce know that he had just stuck in the dagger? The Celtics win in five, one more game than anyone thought before the series?
Collectively, the Hawks' offensive performance was so much better from the first two games that it was hard to believe that this was the same team. It's fine to be fired up and egged on by an emotional crowd, but that doesn't necessarily lead to sharing the basketball. Last night, the Hawks' movement and passing was light years better than the team showed in the games in Boston. How about 28 assists one game after having 10? Mike Bibby deserves some credit here. His scoring is still suffering, but he had five assists in the first quarter to set the tone. All of the Hawks' starters except for Marvin Williams had six or more assists. If the team played like this on a consistent basis, they would be a contender in the East. If my aunt...
All in all, I've been to a lot of Hawks games at Philips Arena and last night was easily the best experience I've had. From the crowd to the team, it could not have been any better. I know I'm being repetitive on this point, but I can't wipe away the feelings of surprise, pride, and excitement the morning after. For one night, I got a peek at what the Hawks can be and I really liked it. When was the last time I had occasion to write a sentence like that? For a night, all the potential of this team that I've hoped for came flowing out. Even better, all the potential of this city as a basketball hotbed came flowing out.