ATLANTA (AP)—The Atlanta Hawks are feeling good and eager to show what they can really do in the playoffs.
The Hawks were banged up a year ago when they took on Cleveland in a second-round series. Joe Johnson(notes) and Al Horford(notes) had sprained ankles, while Marvin Williams(notes) was hindered by a sprained shooting wrist. Not surprisingly, LeBron James(notes) and the Cavaliers swept Atlanta in four straight games.
Outside of a few minor aches and pains, the Hawks are 100 percent healthy heading into their opening-round series against Milwaukee. Game 1 is Saturday.
“We’re excited to be playing with a full deck,” Williams said.
This time, it’s the other team that’s dealing with a major injury: Bucks center Andrew Bogut(notes) is out for the playoffs after wrenching his right arm in a nasty crash to the court with two weeks left in the regular season. He’ll travel with the team during the postseason, but all he’ll be able to do is cheer from the bench.
“It definitely helps us,” Williams said. “That’s super-unfortunate for them. I’m wishing the best for Andrew in his recovery. But we’ve got to do our best to take advantage of it.”
The Bucks were one of the hottest teams in the league, surging into a playoff spot with a stretch of 15 wins in 17 games capped by a 98-95 victory over the Hawks on March 22. They even adopted a catchy mantra—“fear the deer.”
Now, they don’t look nearly as scary. The Bucks went 7-6 down the stretch, and the loss of Bogut makes this once-trendy pick for a first-round upset look a lot more beatable—especially underneath the basket.
Bogut was a skilled offensive player but he’ll probably be missed more at the defensive end. The former No. 1 overall pick blocked shots, took charges and generally did a good job protecting the basket, allowing Milwaukee’s perimeter players to play more aggressively, knowing they had a last line of defense behind them.
The Hawks are expressing much the same sentiment. They’ve made a slow, steady climb from the worst season in franchise history, a 13-69 debacle in 2004-05.
Atlanta has won more games than the year before for five straight seasons, a feat topped only by the Minnesota doing it six years in a row from 1992-98.
The Timberwolves were an expansion squad that managed only one winning season during its run. The Hawks crossed the .500 barrier last season and pushed to a 53-29 mark this year—their most victories since 1997 and good enough to beat out Boston for the No. 3 seed in the East.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” said Johnson, the team’s leading scorer. “We can take this thing as far as we really want it to go, honestly. But it’s about preparing for every game and approaching it like it’s your last. If we come with that attitude, there’s no way we shouldn’t advance.”
Despite their climb into the league’s upper echelon, the Hawks still find themselves largely ignored when it comes to picking teams that might challenge for the NBA title. Cleveland and Orlando are the elite of the East, and everyone figures they’ll be battling it out again for a spot in the finals.
Atlanta coach Mike Woodson is fine with that.
“It’s OK to fly under the radar,” he said. “Anybody can win a playoff series. Anybody. If you’re healthy and clicking on all cylinders, anybody can win a playoff series. We’ve just got to handle our business. We can’t worry about Cleveland and Orlando until we face those teams. Milwaukee is in front of us now. That’s who I’m worried about.”
If nothing else, the Hawks would like to take care of business as quickly as possible against the short-handed Bucks. Last year, Atlanta needed seven games to knock out Miami in the opening round, a grind of a series that left the team with an empty tank heading into the series against the well-rested Cavaliers.
With the expectation that a victory over the Bucks would set up a series with defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando, the Hawks can’t afford to be as beat up as they were a year ago.
“That first series with Miami was a dogfight. It took a lot out of us,” Woodson recalled. “Every team wants to get through a series as quickly as possible. But that ain’t always the case. We’ve just got to handle our business at home.”
No one is looking forward to this series more than Hawks’ backup guard Jamal Crawford(notes), a leading candidate for the sixth man award. After 676 regular-season games over a 10-year career spent mostly with awful teams, he’s made it to the playoffs for the first time.
“I’ve waited forever,” Crawford said. “It still seems like it’s not even real. I’ll think it’s happening when I get out there for the first game.”