With a healthy Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks have eyes on an Eastern crown

The Atlanta Hawks are a lesson in simply aiming to be good heading into the season can still have its pay-offs.
Al Horford, centre, has Atlanta and the rest of the NBA taking notice of the Hawks and their play-off intentions. David Goldman / AP Photo
Al Horford, centre, has Atlanta and the rest of the NBA taking notice of the Hawks and their play-off intentions. David Goldman / AP Photo
Last December, a decent-but-not-great Atlanta Hawks team saw their best player, Al Horford, go down with a season-ending injury.

Club management seemed content to let the team fall out of the play-offs race so that they could play the draft lottery.

It did not quite work out. The Hawks played just well enough to earn the eighth seed in the East play-offs, their 38-44 record edging out a feeble New York Knicks team by a single game.

The Hawks went out in the first round of the play-offs, and they spent their subsequent draft pick, the 15th, on the Michigan State centre Adreian Payne, who has not yet played for them. Payne is one of just two non-foreign first-round picks this season still to be stuck in the developmental league.

Those would seem to be backwards steps. But the Hawks’ performances on the court suggest significant forward progress.

The Hawks are in the midst of a remarkable stretch, winning 12 of their past 13 games – including their past three over play-offs bound clubs -- the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets. No small feat.

That stretch has propelled the team to third place in the conference, at 19-7. With almost no roster turnover in the off-season, the same team that inched into last year’s play-offs look as good as any in their conference this season.

The return of Horford has been huge, of course, but also by simply by leaving a good team be, the Hawks have taken advantage of circumstances.

One does not necessarily need to be great in this year’s East. A trip to the NBA Finals would seem to be there for the taking – whether it be by leaders Toronto, the ambitious Washington Wizards, Derrick Rose’s Bulls or LeBron James’s Cleveland.

Or, just maybe, the Atlanta Hawks.

In a league where the accepted wisdom suggests you either need to be at the top or the bottom, lest you get stuck spinning your wheels in the middle, the Hawks are a lesson that simply aiming to be good heading into the year can still have its pay-offs.

They did not tear it all down. They have, so far, held onto Horford, and the conference has opened up in their favour.

They are a deep team with several nice parts – from Kyle Korver, one of the league’s top three-point threats, to Swiss army knife Paul Millsap to dynamic point guard Jeff Teague.

In a normal year, they would not be expected to be contenders to reach the NBA Finals. But as the Hawks showed last year, taking Indiana to seven games in the play-offs, the NBA is more competitive than is commonly believed.

By fielding a deep, strong team, the Hawks are reaping the reward of that fact. And they just may have a real chance this year.


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Published: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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