ATLANTA - Here in the unofficial capital of the South, where the three sports seasons are college/pro football, spring football/draft and August training camps, it was suggested that the importance of the Atlanta Hawks has been elevated to just below the February signing day, which is saying something because, after all, it's the Hawks.
Bad for forever, the Hawks are now (sort of) relevant and fans are (I guess) interested. This is understandable because the team is really darn good. The Hawks, after Monday's victory over the Nuggets, are 20-10, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. For Western Conference snobs who look at the East as grape juice to the West's merlot, note that the Hawks would be tied for second in the West.
So let's raise a glass to the Atlanta Hawks, who are finally relevant.
"They think they're good," Denver coach George Karl said. "I think they're good."
Joe Johnson, who the Hawks splurged on a few summers ago, is possibly an all-NBA player, Karl suggested, "which means he's one of the top 15 players." Al Horford, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith are each playing better than at any point in their careers and can put up a double-double on any given night. And Mike Bibby is fifth in the league in assists-to-turnover ratio, running his young offense with Chauncey Billups-like leadership.
"I noticed a buzz as we started to near the end of last season," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said of his playoff team. "Our fans were kind of itching a little bit."
More like scratching incessantly. The Hawks hadn't been to the playoffs since 1999. For years, they collected lottery players like toddlers collect coins in a piggy bank.
"When we started and gutted this team, you weren't going to win," Woodson said. "I don't give a (expletive) who coached the team. You just weren't going to win at a high level, because you were dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids."
The fan interest consisted of player's wives. One infamous game was interrupted by two courtside guests speaking too loudly.
But Woodson said last season's playoffs, when the defensive-minded Hawks pushed eventual champion Boston to seven first-round games, ``kind of made who we are so far in this season.''