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Hawks prefer to fly under radar for now

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Most NBA fans will look at the Eastern Conference and see a three-team race. It's understandable given what the Heat did this offseason and what Boston and Orlando have accomplished the past two years.

The Human Highlight Film has a different view.

Al Horford on the Hawks' lack of respect: 'For now, we're just another team. We have to earn it.' (Getty Images)  
Al Horford on the Hawks' lack of respect: 'For now, we're just another team. We have to earn it.' (Getty Images)  
Dominique Wilkins, the former star player for the Hawks and now a team executive and TV color analyst, said the Eastern Conference has "five very dangerous teams" with Atlanta and Chicago. And biased as he might be, Wilkins said the Hawks could surprise people as a serious contender.

"If teams are going to take them lightly, it's a mistake," Wilkins said before the Hawks upset the Heat 93-89 in overtime Tuesday. "I'll leave it at that."

The Hawks know what they are and what they can be as the NBA is past the midpoint of the season. They also know where they stand in public perception.

They aren't the Heatles with their three superstars of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They don't have the pedigree of the Big Three in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Magic were considered better before and after they overhauled their roster with trades. And even the Bulls get more respect for having a budding superstar in Derrick Rose and adding Carlos Boozer.

The Hawks had a boring offseason by comparison. They fired coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with Larry Drew, who most people wouldn't know if he was standing next to them. The biggest move they made was keeping Joe Johnson, who is a great player in his own right, but not at the superstar level of James or Wade.

Atlanta has made the conference semi-finals the past two seasons, and most people don't expect a deep playoff run this year with the same roster and against tougher competition. Hawks center Al Horford said that perception is justified.

"Until we do something in the playoffs, I don't think we're going to get that respect or acknowledgment from other people," said Horford, who left Tuesday's game with a sprained ankle but said afterward he expects to be OK. "For now, we're just another team. We have to earn it."

The Hawks are working on becoming a better team, and it showed in their performance against the Heat, especially with Horford leaving in the third quarter and Marvin Williams (back) out. Atlanta is now 28-15 and two games behind Miami (30-13) in the Southeast Division. The Hawks are one game ahead of the Magic (26-15), and if the playoffs started today, they would be the No. 4 seed behind Boston (31-9), Miami and Chicago (28-14).

Atlanta has now won seven of its past eight games, including five in a row on the road, and the Hawks are starting to come together with Johnson getting healthy. He missed nine games in December after having elbow surgery, and Atlanta went 5-4. It's pretty clear what he means to the team since he's averaging 27.6 points, 4.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds in January.

"We're starting to see signs of Joe coming back into his rhythm," Drew said. "The elbow is getting stronger and stronger."

The Hawks also are getting consistent production from Josh Smith, who had his 20th double-double of the season against the Heat with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Horford is having a career year at 16.2 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. Jamal Crawford, last season's Sixth Man of the Year, also continues to be a standout off the bench at 16.2 points per game.

The Hawks are playing well now, which is important, but they need to carry this momentum throughout the season and, more importantly, do something in the playoffs. Only then can they change the perception that they are a second-rate team in a conference loaded with stars.

"We like being under the radar," Crawford said. "We like creeping and doing our thing that way. If nobody talks about us, that's good. We'll just keep racking up the wins."

They had a big win against the Heat, but they'll need many more big wins if they want respect as a great team. It could end up being a big year in Atlanta, as Wilkins suggested, or this could be the same old Hawks. Only time will tell once the playoffs arrive.


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