ATLANTA (AP) - Mike Woodson figures an occasion like this should be marked with an extreme gesture.So, before the Atlanta Hawks take the court for their first playoff appearance since 1999, the coach plans to shave his head.
For Woodson, it's a belated payback on a promise he made a year ago, trying to prod his team to the postseason. The Hawks didn't make it then, but they wrapped up the final spot in the Eastern Conference with two games to spare.
"I've never had a bald head," Woodson said before Tuesday night's game against Orlando, sounding a little worried but vowing to stick with his new look even after the playoffs.
The Hawks are feeling downright giddy, and who can blame them? After all, this is a team that endured a nine-year rebuilding job marred by all sorts of embarrassing moments along the way.
Isaiah Rider. A money-back playoff guarantee. A 13-win season. An ugly ownership squabble.
But the Hawks have slowly returned to respectability - and that's all it is at this point - by building through the draft (Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Al Horford), spending wisely in free agency (signing All-Star Joe Johnson) and making a key deal just before this year's trade deadline (acquiring a much-needed point guard, Mike Bibby).
"It feels great," said Childress, whose rookie season was a 13-69 debacle in 2004-05. "There's a real sense of accomplishment. But we've still got a job to do."
And what a job it is. The Hawks, who will finish at least four games under .500, open the playoffs against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, who have the league's best record (65-16) and took all three regular-season meetings by at least 10 points.
Most people expect Atlanta to go four and out, but the players vow to make a good showing in the face of overwhelming odds.
"Obviously, they swept us during the regular season," Smith said. "But in the playoffs, anything is possible. Anything. We've got to go out there with a positive mind-set."
The Hawks weren't feeling very good about themselves in early March. Even after acquiring Bibby from Sacramento to run the offense, they went through a 15-game stretch with only three wins and seemed on the verge of a total collapse.
Things got testy in the locker room. Woodson did some yelling. The players yelled back.
The showdown behind closed doors proved to be a catharsis. The Hawks picked up two wins in one night against woeful Miami, one of them a replay of the final 51 seconds of a protested game that Atlanta thought it had won earlier in the season.
From that night until Tuesday, the Hawks won 13 of 20 games to lock up the final spot in the Eastern Conference.
"I had to go off on some guys," Woodson remembered. "After that, we never looked back."
Of course, geography also played a key role in Atlanta's climb to the playoffs.
If the Hawks played out West, they'd be getting ready for the offseason. But only three teams in the Eastern Conference have winning percentages higher than .600, so there was plenty of room for a team with a losing record to slip into the postseason.
But no one in Atlanta is complaining about the inequities of the playoff system. Certainly not Woodson, the frequent target of critics questioning whether he was up to the task in his first NBA head coaching job.
"It feels great," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys. They put in the time from an individual standpoint, and they're starting to see what could happen if we came together as a unit. That means more to me than anything."
Woodson wasn't even around when the Hawks made the ill-fated decision to rebuild their team in 1999, trying to become younger and faster after getting swept by New York in the second round of the playoffs. All they got was worse and worse.
The regime that got rid of players such as Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock and Dikembe Mutombo was long gone by the time the Hawks chose to make Major Rebuilding Job, The Sequel. This time, they relied mostly on the draft. Childress and Smith were first-round picks in 2004. Marvin Williams was chosen second overall the following year. Horford came with the third pick before this season.
While the Hawks might have been better off picking Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams, Horford had a huge impact in his rookie season. He went into Tuesday's game averaging 10.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, an undersized center (6-foot-10, 245 pounds) who's willing to mix it up with bigger guys underneath.
Horford's grittiness is apparent every night. Plus, having won two straight national championships at Florida, he brought a winning mentality to a team that desperately needed it.
"When you thought of the Hawks, you thought of a team at the bottom of the East," Horford said. "I was fortunate to come in at the right time."
For Woodson, it's now time to get out that razor.
There's a promise to keep.
"I'll never have hair again," said Woodson, ready to pay up. "I'll never grow it back."