The franchise that didn't draft Chris Paul and saw its owners sue another over a trade with Phoenix; the franchise of the wayward bird mascot and Cliff Levingston's running lefty hook; the franchise that hadn't won a Game 7 since it was based in St. Louis and a best-of-seven series since 1970 ... That franchise stands among the NBA's elite eight.
Admit it. You laughed at these guys. Heck, we all laughed. But go ask the preening Pat Riley and the illustrious Dwyane Wade how funny it is to play these reborn Atlanta Hawks . Because they're different. They're the kind of team we Atlantans don't see very often. They're the kind that rises to its moment.
"This has been the kind of situation in which Atlanta has traditionally had trouble," said Michael Gearon Jr., a lifelong Hawks fan who's one of the team's many owners. "And not just us, but other teams, too."
Well, yes. From Lonnie Smith dallying in the Metrodome to Eugene Robinson getting arrested on Biscayne Boulevard, we've grown accustomed to the cosmic letdown. But this Game 7 wasn't that. On the contrary, it was a beatdown. The better team won, and the better team calls Atlanta home. How nice is that?
"It feels good," said Josh Smith, the Atlantan who scored 21 points and took nine rebounds in Game 7. "It feels like the monkey's off Atlanta's back, not just this team's."
Said Al Horford, who worked 32 1/2 minutes on a sprained right ankle: "It's big. People are really starting to look at Atlanta and consider us a Basketball city."
People should. Forget that Philips Arena wasn't quite sold out for Game 7. What matters is that these guys spent a year saying they wanted a Game 7 at home, and when they got it, they made it sing.
Joe Johnson, the flashpoint of that Phoenix trade in 2005, had a terrible first quarter but owned the final three, finishing with 27 points (on 19 shots), four assists and five steals. Zaza Pachulia did his Hercules-unchained bit again, the Heat's Udonis Haslem growing so frazzled he finally threw Zaza to the floor and got ejected. And Mike Woodson --- yes, Woodson --- had a moment that changed the game.
Game tied, first quarter, 10 seconds left, Heat ball. Woodson called for his men to give a foul, which Zaza did. And Woodson inserted Mario West, who harassed Wade into a lousy crosscourt pass that Mike Bibby intercepted. And James Jones fouled Bibby, who made a pair to give the Hawks a lead they'd never lose. Great coaching.
The rest was highlights and laughs, Johnson hitting and Smith dunking and Zaza hitting the floor. The lead would reach 29 points before Woodson began giving his starters curtain calls, which were richly deserved. They had stared down D-Wade. They had won a Game 7. They were the same old Hawks no longer.
Said Smith: "To go from 13 wins [in 2004-2005, his rookie season] to this is just a blessing. This is a wonderful team."
No, it isn't the NBA's best team. But it now gets to play the best. LeBron and his Cavs will probably win. But we Atlantans again have reason to watch.