While the Orlando Magic were busy hanging their Southeast Division title banner on opening night of the NBA season, the Hawks were hard at work trying to snatch it away this season. The Hawks' 99-85 win on Oct. 29 served as motivation for both teams.
Stung by the defeat on what was to be a night of celebration, the Magic are 26-7 since.
The Hawks (22-11) used that win as part of a 6-0 mark that kick-started the best two-month start to a season the franchise has had in more than a decade.
They meet again this week for a two-game series, at Philips Arena on Wednesday and in Orlando on Friday. Orlando leads by just 3 1/2 games in the standings. The stakes will be high, which is just the way the Hawks like it.
"There's no doubt these two games are huge for us, for both teams really," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "We have to go into them with a playoff mentality, because this week can either put us back two losses on the division leader or we can win and keep moving on up that ladder to catch them and everybody else down the road."
That the Hawks are even speaking this way this late in the season is a testament to their fabulous start, one that began with a monster effort in Orlando.
"We played with so much energy," Hawks captain and All-Star Joe Johnson said. "We were so enthused about getting back out there on the court and playing Basketball together again after that playoff run. Knowing the success we had against [Orlando] last year, we wanted to come out and show we were a good team.
"Come Wednesday, we know that'll be in the back of their minds as well. So we have to come a little harder than we did the first time because they're going to be ready for us and they know we're hunting for their spot."
The Magic have to deal with Washington first, tonight at home. But they'll have plenty of time to wrap their heads around yet another matchup with the Hawks, who have split the past four games with All-Star center and Atlanta native Dwight Howard's crew.
The Hawks will have had three full days to game plan for the Magic, though they took off Sunday.
It's rest that Johnson insists couldn't have come at a better time, especially after grueling back-to-back games against New Jersey and Houston over the weekend.
"I think the break we got in between games is always much needed," Johnson said. "These are very important games this week, especially for us trying to take that top spot. But there's no doubt both teams are playing at a high level right now."
Hawks coach Mike Woodson had no trouble riling his team up during Monday's practice, with everyone aware of what's on the line.
"Well, you know you've got to deal with them because they won [the division] last year and played extremely well doing it," Woodson said. "You've also got a group of guys in Howard, [Hedo] Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis all possibly being All-Stars. So just dealing with that alone is tough.
"But the focus for us first and foremost is protecting home. We're trying to win every game we play here at Philips Arena before our fans. So in that respect, [the Magic] just happen to be the next team on our schedule."
The back-to-back setup, however, twists this saga in another direction. Outside of a playoff scenario, it is unusual for one club to see the same team, let alone a division rival, twice in a three-day span.
"There's no doubt that when you see a team on a back-to-back you have to treat it like a playoff set," Woodson said. "So in that way it is like a small mini-series. And you have to protect home court in a series."
NEXT FOR Hawks
* Who: vs. Magic
* When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
* TV; radio: SportSouth; 790 AM