Hawks forward Josh Smith signed with Indiana out of high school but never actually made it to campus, opting for the 2004 NBA Draft after graduating from Oak Hill Academy.Since he never actually played college basketball he's never experienced the rush of March Madness. That is until now.
"I know this isn't the same," Smith said of the Hawks' playoff pursuit, which continued Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets at Izod Center. "But for me this is it. And I have to imagine that the only thing better than the chase of trying to get into the playoffs is the playoffs itself."
Smith resides in a locker room full of guys who have won titles -- Mike Bibby (Arizona), Marvin Williams (North Carolina) and Al Horford (twice at Florida) have all experienced the ultimate college basketball high.
Others like captain and All-Star Joe Johnson, Josh Childress, Acie Law IV, Salim Stoudamire and Mario West have all tasted the intoxicating flavor of the NCAA Tournament as well.
"It's that time of year," Williams said of the NCAA Tournament, which kicks into full gear around the country Thursday. "Everybody feels it. We were all looking at the brackets (Tuesday) trying to figure out who was going to do what."
Right now, though, the Hawks' focus is solely on their own March Madness Hawks, if you will.
"We've got a huge opportunity in front of us," Smith said. "It doesn't end until April (16, the Hawks' regular season finale in Miami). But we're going to ride this wave of excitement all the way until the very end. We have to."
NETS 125, HAWKS 117: The Hawks played like a team desperate to snatch a little cushion in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. They showed up with the right swagger and had their game faces on.
But New Jersey Nets guard Vince Carter made sure they went home empty-handed, though, summoning his best performance of the season as the New Jersey Nets denied the Hawks 125-117 Wednesday night at Izod Center.
Carter, the eight-time All-Star and once the man thought to be the heir to Michael Jordan's throne as the NBA's signature talent, dialed up a throwback performance to help the Nets tie the Hawks for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Nets own the tiebreaker, having won the season series 3-1.
"We scored 70 points in the first half and fell back into that mode where we think we can just outscore people," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, whose team saw its three-game win streak come to an end. "When you start struggling to make shots you have to make sure they're struggling to make shots to balance things out and that didn't happen.
"We just didn't defend. And I'm not taking anything away from the Nets because they shot lights out. We shoot 50 percent ourselves and don't win the game, I say it's our defense."
In a game filled with playoff-level tension on both sides and more mood swings than Britney Spears on a bender, the Hawks simply ran out of shot-making gas in the second half while the Nets never let up.
Carter finished the night with a season-high 39 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He got plenty of help from Richard Jefferson (33 points) and Devin Harris (26 points and nine assists).