ATLANTA – As much as they wanted to downplay it, this meant something. The Atlanta Hawks didn’t want to go into the playoffs with a Can’t-Beat-The-Elite albatross following them every step of the way.
“We know we can play with anybody,” said Josh Smith, who flushed a lot more than a game-winning putback dunk at the buzzer Wednesday night in an 86-84 victory over the Orlando Magic.
It all came together for a team that no longer has to search so hard for respect. In front of a solid midweek crowd in attendance-challenged Philips Arena, the Hawks clinched a playoff berth and carried star-crossed teammate Jamal Crawford to the postseason for the first time in his nine-year career.
They also took an important step, however reluctant they were to admit it. Despite a 4-0 season sweep of the Celtics, the Hawks’ resume was stained by an 0-6 record against the other elites – 0-1 against the Lakers, 0-2 against Cleveland, 0-3 against Orlando, with those three losses coming by an average of 22.3 points. That streak ended Wednesday night, when Joe Johnson’s jumper caromed off the rim and into the left hand of Smith, who soared through the lane and beat the buzzer with a dunk that sent a lot of doubts down with it.
It was important, Smith was saying at his locker, “Just for our confidence, to know we can beat this team.”
The deciding sequence came after Vince Carter’s 3-pointer tied it at 84-84 with 9.9 seconds left. As it turns out, it was better that the Hawks didn’t have any timeouts, because Smith said the matchup confusion resulted in nobody putting a body on him as Johnson’s 16-footer floated toward the rim.
“Vince hit a great shot at the end, and Vince played great defense at the end to get the stop,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “On the weak side, we just stood and watched. We absolutely spectated. All we needed was one boxout and we’d be in overtime. But we didn’t get the boxout and we’re not in overtime. How you stand there and watch that play, I don’t know. The guys on the court were doing the same thing the guys on the bench were doing – standing there watching.”
Down the hall, in the Hawks’ locker room, they were doing something else. Crawford, who’d spent his entire career on pathetic non-playoff teams in Chicago, New York and briefly in Golden State, proudly flashed a black T-shirt that read, “Clinched!” He hung it in his locker, saying he figured he’d let it stay there for a while. It’s been a long wait.
“When you first come into the league, you think you’re supposed to be in the playoffs in year one or two,” Crawford said. “I don’t take it for granted. I’ve seen some tough situations, the worst of the worst.”
And if the Hawks had lost to another elite team, they’d be wondering if they were ever going to take the next step.
“It feels good,” Al Horford said. “There’s a lot of people that have been talking and questioning us against the bigger teams.”
As the locker room was clearing out, the party was just starting in coach Mike Woodson’s office. Earlier in the day, after shootaround, roses and balloons had adorned his office signifying his 52nd birthday. Now, family and friends and adult beverages had joined them.
“That was a great game, a playoff game,” Woodson said.
They will be playing those in Atlanta again this spring, the third straight year Woodson will lead the Hawks to the postseason. For five straight years, he’s won more games than he did the last. By beating Orlando, the Hawks clinched their ninth consecutive winning month – the third-longest streak in franchise history and second-longest since the team has been in Atlanta.
Woodson is on the last year of his contract, Johnson is poised to join the star-studded free agent class, and all bets are off as to how that shakes out. For now, they should all take Crawford’s advice.
“You have to appreciate it,” Crawford said, “because you never know when it’s going to happen again.”