ATLANTA—They lined the darkened hallway by the dozen, Hawks fans clad in crimson red t-shirts and jerseys ranging from Dominique Wilkins to Jeff Teague. True Believers, as the team has come to call them, pressed up against a concrete wall papered with supportive posters supplied by students from local schools.
Let’s Go Hawks!
Let’s Go Hawks!
They chanted for five minutes, then ten, the collective voices rising in anticipation of the Hawks players bursting down the tunnel, cresting into a roar when, led by Teague, they finally emerged.
LET’S GO HAWKS!
LET’S GO HAWKS!
Few fan bases in the NBA are as maligned as Atlanta’s. The city is one of the hottest destinations for transplants—it’s ranked atop Penske Truck Rental’s top-ten moving destination list for five years running—which has, in part, contributed to its struggles to connect to its sports teams. It’s a fan base with something to prove, just like the team it supports.
For two weeks, the vultures have been circling, the critics that have waited all season for the Hawks to fail poised and ready to pounce. They’re a regular season team. No fourth quarter scorer. When Atlanta struggled to dispatch Brooklyn, the voices got louder. Never mind that Brooklyn had as much talent as any No. 8 seed in history, that the chronically underachieving Nets were due for a few good games. Good team. Can’t win a championship.
A home loss to Washington in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals seemingly vaporized Atlanta’s chances. It was Chicago and Cleveland now; Atlanta was ready to be rolled over.
“This is the time you stay away from Twitter, stay off Instagram, turn your phone on airplane mode and get your Bluetooth hooked up with your music playing,” Kent Bazemore said after Game 2. “You [can’t be] worried about all that outside stuff. Some people like to talk. They like to throw out these theories. They run with it, fans run with it. We have to stay away from it.”
[daily_cut.nba]The Hawks did on Tuesday, rebounding to beat the Wizards 106-90 in Game 2. They caught a break before the game when John Wall was ruled out, his swollen left wrist not game ready. A heavily taped Wall emerged for warmups, did some light dribbling before quickly disappearing back into the locker room, done for the day. Washington got a superior effort from Ramon Sessions (21 points, four assists) but it’s impossible to replace Wall, the engine who makes everyone around him better.
It wasn’t a pretty win. The Hawks blew another double-digit lead (a recurring problem) and didn’t shoot particularly well (ditto). They manufactured offense in the fourth quarter. Leading by five with six minutes left, Atlanta swelled the lead to 12 behind a Pero Antic three, a put back from Paul Millsap and a pair of Antic free throws. The Wizards responded with a pair of three’s, but a Kyle Korver triple with just under three minutes left put the game out of reach.
“It’s the playoffs, every game is tough,” Korver said. “Except, maybe, for Golden State.”
The Hawks know the skeptics are not going anywhere, that this superstar-less roster will always be doubted. This is a team that needs to move the ball (67.6 percent of the team’s buckets were assisted during the regular season, best in the NBA), shoot a high percentage (46.6%, fourth) and make three’s (38%, second). They don’t have the luxury of a LeBron James or a Derrick Rose, an MVP-level talent who can simply take over.
• MORE NBA: Highlights of the Hawks' critical Game 2 win over the Wizards
It takes a total team effort, and a consistent one. Washington isn’t going anywhere. The Wizards that drifted into the postseason are gone, replaced by the physical, experienced group that looked like conference contenders in the first half of the season. Wall will be back, Bradley Beal will continue to play well off him and Paul Pierce will be around to stick the fourth quarter shiv in Atlanta’s back.
"We feel like we can beat (the Hawks) with who we have," said Pierce.
To a man, Atlanta appears to get that. There was no celebration after Tuesday’s win. Players shuffled back down the tunnel, an occasional fist bump for a security guard the only indicator of success. Inside the locker room was more of the same. No music, no overreaction to a season saving win. Kyle Korver dressed quietly in one corner, ice bags covering his legs, his nose still oozing from an inadvertent elbow from Beal late in the game.
“We can shoot it better,” Korver said.
“We have to put our foot the gas when we are up 10,15,” added Bazemore.
This team claims to be insulated, that they don’t hear the doubters. “Coach won’t even let us watch ESPN in the players lounge,” said Bazemore. Good. This Hawks team can still reach its potential, can still prove that a 60-win regular season wasn’t a fluke.
But believe this: They will have to do it in a climate where few believe they can.