BOSTON – For so many of the Atlanta Hawks, the TD Banknorth Garden, and all that the arena represented, brought back many memories Wednesday, most of them humbling, a few even humiliating.
Maybe the luckiest Hawk was Josh Smith, who was hurt and didn't make the trip to play in the mid-November epic, thus denying the compassionate and empathetic fans of Boston the pleasure of reminding him how horribly his Stepford twin performed here last spring. (The fans did have their way with Mike Bibby instead. He was the one who called them "bandwagon fans" last spring.)
But, as they say, that was then – and this is now. Atlanta's fortunes in Boston did not change in the Hawks' first visit to the city in the 2008-09 season. They still lost 103-102, thus ending their remarkable six-game winning streak to open the season.
But if the Garden was the Hawks' charnel house last spring – and lopsided defeats by margins of 23, 19, 25 and 34 points would seem to indicate it was – the Hawks' play on Wednesday night showed they appear to be warming to the place. The Celtics needed a tough fall-away by Paul Pierce over Al Horford with a half-second left to win the game.
Atlanta had a 16-point lead in the second quarter (which says as much about the current play of the Celtics as it does about Atlanta). The Hawks had a one-point lead after three quarters. They were in a tie situation in the final 30 seconds and took a one-point lead with 7.4 seconds left. They were there every step of the way, a sign that things have, indeed, changed.
"We're playing together,'' Bibby said. "When I first came here, it wasn't like that."
Doc Rivers, the Celtics' coach, agreed. "They play hard and they play together," he said. "Usually, young teams just play hard and not together because each guy wants to do it all by himself. Their effort is amazing."
At first glance, these Hawks don't look a whole lot different than the callow cabal of 2007-08, which, lest we forget, won only 37 games. True, they lost valuable reserve Josh Childress, whose quirky game, boundless energy and hustle are now on display in Greece. But two peripatetic vets signed on, Flip Murray (sixth team in seven seasons) and Maurice Evans (sixth team in six seasons) to help steady things. More to the point, the returning players showed coach Mike Woodson that they had not just earned a playoff check last spring. They also learned a valuable lesson from their losses in Boston.
"It all goes back to that series. The Celtics forced us to have to defend because if we didn't, we wouldn't have won three games in Atlanta,'' Woodson said. "They forced us to play the way that they played – and it became a competitive series."
Well, it was a competitive three games in Philips Arena. And Delta Air Lines got some unexpected extra business. But the games in Boston were competitive in the same way that the John McCain campaign was competitive in the District of Columbia.
The Hawks were the classic Young Team that preferred the comforts of home. Smith shot 27.7 percent in Boston – and 53.6 percent in Atlanta. Bibby shot 25 percent in Boston – and 40.5 percent in Atlanta. They were two different teams in two different cities, and simple math determined that they'd lose that battle.
However, the way the Celtics won gave the Hawks something to strive for as they came back for a new season. Woodson saw it right away. This most definitely was not the same group of guys he'd seen last fall. Or last spring.
"Knowing they could play and compete with the world champions gave them a different [look] in the summer in terms of preparation and then in coming back for [training] camp,'' Woodson said. "It was probably the best, competitive camp since I've been here. It was a nice carryover into the exhibition season and a big carryover into the regular season."
Or as Horford put it, "Watching the way the Celtics played and won, that's something that coach really harped on in training camp. They defend. They rebound. That's what we want to do."
The change in this season's first six games was impossible to miss. Atlanta entered the Celtics game ranked fourth in points allowed, third in defensive field-goal percentage and second in point differential. (The Celtics were first in points allowed and defensive field-goal percentage, showing that the more things change, the more they really don't.) The Hawks were unbeaten, despite having lost Smith to an ankle sprain and Marvin Williams for one game due to a suspension.
Four of their first six wins were on the road; they won 12 road games in 2007-08. Ten of their first 16 games are on the road, and seven of those 10 games are against teams which made the playoffs in 2008. They won at Orlando. They won at New Orleans. They almost won in Boston. They've averaged 18,971 fans in their two home games – unheard of numbers in Atlanta recently – and the support came in handy in their home opener when they rallied from 23 points down to beat the Sixers.
The 6-0 start was the best since the 1997-98 team won its first 11 games. OK, who outside of the Lenny Wilkens Fan Club actually remembers that? That was the year Rick Pitino turned around the Celtics (not) and Larry Bird turned around the Pacers (yes) and the Bulls won in Michael Jordan's final season (yes and not).
The Hawks that year were nomads at home, splitting their games between the Georgia Dome and Georgia Tech. They ended up winning 50 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs.
This year's team has big aspirations, and to a man, they point to the Celtics series as the launch date. They won three games against the world champions, more than either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Detroit Pistons. They awakened the previously comatose basketball population of Atlanta and made Philips Arena the place to be in the playoffs. To this day, Celtics principal owner Wyc Grousbeck said Philips was the loudest building of the postseason. (That's saying something, given all the faux noise that Cleveland needlessly bombards you with these days.)
The Hawks played a terrific game in their first visit to Boston since the annihilation in Game 7. They were one stop away from keeping their season perfect and inflicting the first home loss on the defending NBA champs.
"You can see the difference from last time. They're poised. They're playing harder,'' the Celtics' Sam Cassell said of the Hawks.
And even with the loss, the Hawks have served notice that they plan to be in the discussion this season, not merely viewed as playoff poseurs.
"We know what happened here,'' Horford said of last spring. "We didn't win, but I think the experience helped us. We took them to seven games. We gave ourselves a chance if nothing else. Everyone grew from the experience. We just want to take it from there."
From what transpired here Wednesday, they look to be doing just that.