The first-round playoff series between the Hawks and the Celtics was a turning point for both teams.
The Hawks shook off the funk of a nine-year playoff drought by pushing the series to seven games, winning three dramatic home games. They energized their fan base and served notice that their doormat years might be over.
The Celtics pushed on to win the NBA title, No. 17 for a franchise neck-deep in championship banners. They completed a one-year turnaround from the worst team in the Eastern Conference to the best team in basketball.
It's a link that was on Hawks coach Mike Woodson's mind this week when he spoke with AJC Hawks beat writer Sekou Smith about the team's past, present and future:
Q. In a league notorious for copycat tactics, what will the rest of the league take away from what Boston did this past season and particularly the playoffs?
A. Their team is unique in that, and you can really go back to the Detroit team we had [in 2004], the foundation was defense and rebounding. In addition, you just didn't know where it was coming from on a given night. We just had different weapons on that Detroit team. And when they all were clicking we were incredibly hard to beat. Even when they struggled to score points they didn't get blown out and that's a product of a foundation built on defense and rebounding. What was also a given is that they had three guys that could get you in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. You go in trying to figure out how you were going to stop those three guys. The Lakers caught all three of them playing well. We caught Paul and Garnett playing well and Ray struggled. In the end, I think people will look at the Celtics and realize that you can have three key guys and a nice supporting cast and build your foundation on defense and rebounding and you have a shot at winning it all.
PlayoffsHawks: We have our big three - Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Joe Johnson, in that order. Josh Smith as a SF/PF can score at will around the basket, he should be our leading scorer, shot-blocker, Al Horford at PF/C can bang with any bigs in the league, and he has a sick jumpshot, he's always been a beast defensively and with rebounds, but he should be our 3rd leading scorer. All-Star Joe Johnson has shown he is the great consistent player, now he needs to show that Steve Nash influence in how to make his teammates better, and still average 18-22 ppg, maybe 6 apg.
Q. What then becomes priority No. 1 for the Hawks in pursuit of that goal?
A. The first priority has to be [Hawks general manager Rick Sund] getting Josh Smith and Josh Childress back in Hawks uniforms. I don't even think you can think about anything else until you resolve that matter. From there we have to figure out our ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th guys and who they are. Teams will pattern themselves after Boston in that regard. I think back to last summer this time when [Celtics coach] Doc [Rivers] and I talked about how his team needed to make a big move and not draft another younger player to take that next step. And they did exactly what he was talking about, and probably a whole lot more. I don't think it's to our benefit to add another young guy. We need some veterans to add along with our eight core guys. We're still young enough in certain spots, with guys three and four years into the system, that our core group will continue to get better next year and beyond. What we have to do is build around them, give them an opportunity to shine by putting veteran guys around them that know what it takes to win in our league.
PlayoffsHawks: Woodson is right on, trade Marvin Williams.
Q. More specifically as a coaching staff, what will you tweak and revamp in order to make sure you're growing along with your talent next season?
A. Having Mike Bibby go through veteran camp will be huge for our team. Bibby still doesn't know my system like I want him to know it. When we acquired him at the trade deadline I turned the ball over to him and he ran it the best he could, and he did a [heck] of a job with it. But going to veteran camp and learning what we're about is huge for him. I think as a coaching staff to go back to our offensive system and tweak some things is extremely important. And defensively we have to go back to how we played in those home games during the Boston series. And I know the playoffs is different, but being defensive minded from the first day of camp all the way through is what carried them. We've tried to build that in our players and they've gotten better. I'd like to think after a playoff round they know how they have to intensify their defensive approach to be successful. Although we made shots in the playoffs, it was our defense and rebounding that really held us together to win those playoff games.
PlayoffsHawks: Bibby will be much better for the Hawks next season, 12-15 ppg 5-7 apg, grooming Acie Law to soon takeover the starting position.
Q. Guys who had sporadic roles or production during the regular season seemed to come to life in the playoff for you. Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams both played crucial roles in the playoffs, as did rookie point guard Acie Law IV, albeit in limited action. How do you build on what they did in the postseason going forward?
A. All those guys, along with everybody, your game has to go to another level. Everybody across the board has to take their game to the next level. This is a very pivotal summer for Acie Law as far as getting him back going, and that starts really in summer league. Zaza coming back with a better mental frame of mind to accept his role and play is just as crucial. And Marvin building on his last two years and maybe taking that next big leap in terms of getting where Joe [Johnson] and Josh Smith and Bibby are in terms of being a consistent scorer has to take place. Marvin has to step into that role where he can be that third guy or even that second guy some nights that we rely on night in and night out.
PlayoffsHawks: the Hawks really do have a decent coach, if Doc Rivers then why not...
Oh, but we really do gotta trade Marvin Williams though, he is not a 2nd or 3rd man MAN! He is a complementary role player at best, and if he doesn't get a sick jumpshot he'll be useless, because he will never have a slashing game, we already got the best, Josh Smith. I'm glad Woodson reminded the world of ZaZa's role as a back-up big, he is a good role player, just not a good starter like the season the Hawks went 13-69. Acie Law is a starter in this league, but only if he learns to distribute, he scores well though.
Q. The one player everybody seems to be wondering about is Speedy Claxton. Where does he fit with this team right now and beyond?
A. I don't really know where his future is. We're still handling him from a rehab standpoint and we'll get a chance to sit down with him in the next couple of weeks and map out his position in terms of where he's going with our basketball team. I know he still wants to play. Our job is to make sure he's getting proper treatment and make sure he's ready to go. But only time will tell.
PlayoffsHawks: Speedy Claxton is cap space, that's all he is, in the off-season of 2009.
Q. You've lost David Fizdale from your staff to Miami. Is there going to be continuity to allow some of this growth and development you're talking about or will a new set of faces cause some upheaval there?
A. We'll be fine. We'll continue to teach and make sure guys know and understand what needs to be done. We'll interview some guys in Fiz's absence since he's gone to Miami. I have enough veteran coaches around me. We'll add another coach in Fizdale's position. I feel comfortable, though, with the fine coaches we have coming back.
PlayoffsHawks: get a great offensive minded assistant coach, anybody.
Q. With so much pressure on everyone last season to get to the playoffs in the fourth year, is there any sense of relief now with a new two-year contract that you can go about the business of developing some new chemistry, between players and between players and coaches, for the future?
A. Everybody is excited being back. We've gone through the tough times. When you start from the bottom trying to build a team its just not easy. I never experienced anything like what we went through. But in tough times you grow as a team. Last year going into veteran camp guys came back early and we built chemistry and carried that over into preseason and the start of the regular season. We felt that early on and then stumbled in January and February. I think the taste of the playoffs makes guys want to get back to camp sooner. I think the awful times are behind us. Expectations are always high when you're trying to win basketball games. That's just the reality of our sport. But if you don't want the expectations to be high you just shouldn't be a part of our sport. Blame it on whatever you want in the past, it's just a hard road to travel to get to this point from where we started. I've watched NBA teams go from zero to where we are today and I can't help but think we're going to continue to grow. I promise you I'm going to continue to demand and push our guys to play at a high level every night.
The Hawks 07-08 season was a big step forward, the 7-game Boston Celtics series was a giant leap in the ranks of the best teams in the east, and now there's is no team, especially not the NBA Champion Celtics that we are afraid of or intimidated by. We will watch the Bulls, Knicks, and Heat as they try to ascend in the east next season, but the Hawks will not slip. if the Hawks sign a big 7-footer to start at center so we can move Horford to PF (DESANGA DIOP!!), i guarantee the Hawks will win 50 games next season and if by some crazy appointment, we meet the Boston Celtics again in the playoffs, i GUARANTEE we'll beat them boys. Now, thats a tough bet, yes? and it's not just because i'm a die-hard fan, shoot, i thought the Lakers were gonna beat the Celtics in the Finals, we all saw the Celtics step their game up through every round of these playoffs in 2008, but that Celtics swagger can be broken, and an new-old rivalry has already been reborn. The arrogance, entitlement of the Celtics (Hillary) against the young, swift, resilient Atlanta Hawks (Obama), we all know what happened in that battle don't we? LOL and maybe that ain't fair, but i don't care, and maybe it all happens opposite to my prediction, they meet again in #1 vs. #8 and the World Champion Celtics SWEEP the young Hawks like they should have done last year. But, our team is on the ascention, the Celtics have plateaued, yes, they'll be the best team in the east for at least 3-4 years, but the Hawks are flying for that number one spot, and seeing the Celtics celebrate that championship motivated and showed them that they are not that far away.