May 03, 2009

The thank-you notes can be addressed to 150 Causeway Street in Boston, the home of the Celtics. As the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals by disposing of the Heat 91-78 in Game 7 on Sunday (RECAP | BOX), the theme was lessons learned from a year ago. Before tipoff, in the calm and comfort of his office, Hawks coach Mike Woodson again referred to the Celtics series 12 months prior where the upstart Hawks lost in seven games.

"When we left, it was a sick taste in everybody's mouth," Woodson said. "But the guys were eager to get back, and we worked to get the homecourt advantage; and now we have a chance to finish it."

While the Hawks did not necessarily put together a Game 7 rout like the Celtics did last year in Round 1, they were in control and never let the Heat breathe. Joe Johnson was worthy in his superstar role for the Hawks, pouring in 27 points and outplaying the noble Dwyane Wade, who finished with 31 points, but was forced to do too much by himself.

After the game, Woodson again credited the Celtics for "teaching us how to play playoff basketball," and launching a year-long quest to gain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs and advance.

"I am so proud of these guys," Woodson said. "Sometimes when you set goals, they don't always come true, but theirs came true in the sense that we made the playoffs and were able to host a first-round series. It couldn't happen in a better way to have Game 7 at home and win it."

This bizarre series, which featured dueling blowouts, had yet another one in store for the less-than-capacity crowd at Phillips Arena. Both coaches seem to sense whoever got out to a lead was not coming back, as five timeouts were spent in the first half. The Hawks led by two at the end of the first quarter, then made sure there would be no more lead changes by dominating in the second. Consecutive threes by Flip Murray, Johnson and Johnson again, the latter from five feet beyond the arc with Wade in his face, stretched the lead to 33-22.

It was clear the Heat missed Jermaine O'Neal, who played just 42 seconds because of a concussion, but he wasn't going to make the difference on this day. The Hawks were determined to prove earning homecourt advantage after 82 games -- at least in the first round -- would make the difference in Game 7.

"It is a monkey off my back," said Smith, who scored 21 points. "I remember the sour taste from the Celtics series, and I remember winning just 13 games my first year. We wanted to write a different story this year."

The Hawks stretched the lead to 29 in the fourth quarter before things became a bit testy. Udonis Haslem, the Heat's poised veteran who chipped in 14 points and 13 rebounds in a losing effort, was ejected for a hard foul on Zaza Pachulia with 3:51 to play. When the final buzzer sounded, the Heat players immediately headed to the locker room and did not meet the Hawks on the court for any post-series handshakes.

Not that it mattered to the Hawks, who reached the second round for the first time since 1999 and won a seven-game series for the first time since 1970. Waiting in the second round are LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

"Cleveland is going to present a major challenge for us," Pachulia said. "We just have to go in with an aggressive mindset."

With all the credit Woodson handed to last year's Celtics teaching his team invaluable playoff lessons, there is one more he can point out -- the team that sent LeBron and the Cavs home last year was none other than the Celtics.

Joe Johnson. He actually started the day slow, but caught fire in the second quarter and never cooled off. Johnson was 6-for-8 from three and had 27 points, five rebounds, four assists and five steals. "When I made a couple of threes, it extended the defense, and then I was able to attack whichever way I wanted," he said.

Mario Chalmers. In his last elimination game, as a junior at Kansas last March, Chalmers was the hero with an overtime-forcing three in the national championship game. He was not as fortunate on Sunday, going 1-for-6 from the floor and tallying just four points, four assists and three turnovers. Chalmers played just one minute in the fourth quarter.

Pachulia sparked a 17-4 run in the second quarter with one of his typical hustle plays. Pachulia ended up on his back in the lane after securing an offensive rebound and kept a Hawks possession alive, which resulted in a Flip Murray three-pointer. The play drew roars and launched a run that eventually pushed the Hawks out in front 41-26.

The Game 7 win was the first for the franchise since April 1, 1961, when the St. Louis Hawks defeated the Lakers 105-103.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the media less than two hours before tipoff O'Neal would not be able to play for the second straight game due to a concussion. However, O'Neal briefly made an appearance in the first quarter, playing 42 seconds. He committed two fouls and missed his only shot. "I pleaded with everyone to give me a shot," O'Neal said. "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish it out." ...

Spirit the Hawk, Atlanta's live mascot, returned after its Game 2 adventure. The hawk was not allowed to fly from the upper deck to its handler at floor level, however. Spirit was strapped to its handler's arm and was walked once across the court prior to the Hawks' introductions.

Atlanta travels to Cleveland for Game 1 on Tuesday. Even though the Hawks were extended to seven games -- while the Cavs won in four -- fatigue should not be a factor given the youth of the Hawks, the number of off-days in the first round and the blowout nature of all seven games. The Cavs won the season series 3-1 with James averaging 26.3 points per game. The Hawks just played seven games against an MVP-caliber player in Wade, but Cleveland's supporting cast for James will present a stiffer challenge.

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