The transformation continued Friday night at Philips Arena, where the overwhelming majority of those among the 16,366 kept acknowledging that the Hawks are the home team and the Knicks aren't from around these parts. It's about time. Too much needless Southern hospitality was directed from Hawks crowds to visiting teams. That's a polite way of saying Hawks crowds made fools of themselves until recently.
This Hawks crowd, for instance, kept increasing its level of noise for the home team throughout the evening, but there was nothing like its racket down the stretch of what evolved into a Hawks' 98-95 victory and a 12-6 record. They cheered themselves silly after the Hawks' Mike Bibby nailed a 3-pointer, then another. They cheered even louder after the Knicks' Chris Duhon lofted a shot that hit only air.
Then, with the Knicks preparing for a potential game-tying shot inside the final six seconds, there were cries of "defense, defense" before the Knicks left their huddle after a timeout.
Granted, the Knicks are a dysfunctional franchise (Stephon Marbury; dismantled roster to entice LeBron James to come two years from now; zero defense). Still, this was another indication that Hawks crowds finally get it.
For just shy of forever, whenever the Hawks played anybody from Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Boston or New York, those in Philips Arena delivered sloppy hugs and kisses to the other guys.
That was before the Hawks nearly scared the lordly green off the eventual world champion Celtics last season in the first round of the playoffs. That also was before the Hawks brought all of that momentum into this season. They have the best starting lineup in the NBA's Southeast Division. If you combine that with a solid bench for the first time since the Bush administration (the father, not the son), the Hawks are flirting with decency and beyond.
We're back to the Hawks' true home-court advantage --- you know, compared to whatever they had before.
"When I came here, it didn't surprise me, because of the teams I've coached in the past, like when I was at Philly and we would come in here with [Allen] Iverson, and they would pack the place, and there would be nothing but Philly fans," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, in his fifth season. "Then, when I was with the Pistons, it was the same thing. They would ROOT for us. It was very strange, so I wasn't as shocked to that when I took the job.
"All I was thinking, 'How in the heck can I get all the people next door [at the Georgia Dome], watching [Michael] Vick and that crew, to come over here to watch us?' That's the only thing that ever has been on my mind. And I knew that we had to win in order to get that accomplished. I thought we turned the corner last year."
They did. It actually started before the Hawks' near postseason miracle. Try two months earlier, when Philips Arena became Staples Center East for the Lakers. "Everybody was chanting 'MVP, MVP,' when Kobe Bryant was at the [foul] line," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. Then he recalled how the masses quickly showered the Hawks with a loud dose of love as they surged to victory after entering the fourth period with an eight-point deficit. Added Smith, "We were able to overcome [the Kobe chants], and we definitely got everybody involved, and we just ran with it."
They're still running with it, and they're winning with it, too.