ATLANTA (AP) - The Hawks sure enjoyed that trip to the playoffs. The sellout crowds. The over-the-top emotion. The drama of it all.They'd like to hang around even longer this year.
The team that won all of 13 games just four seasons ago has grown up. Despite a two-game losing streak, Atlanta went into the weekend only a half-game behind Detroit for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference - a crucial spot that ensures home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs - and a begrudging respect from opponents who once viewed a game against the Hawks as a gimme in the "W" column.
That's certainly not the case anymore.
"The Hawks are a good basketball team with a lot of good players and they play together," Detroit's Allen Iverson said after a recent trip to Philips Arena that didn't go so well for the visitors.
Actually, the first signs of maturity emerged last spring, when the Hawks played well enough over the final month to end their millennium-long playoff drought, albeit with a 37-45 record that was good enough in the East to claim the final spot. Then they really blossomed, taking the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in an opening-round series that exposed them to the joys - and pitfalls - of postseason basketball.
The Hawks won all three games at Philips Arena, each of them played before the sort of raucous crowds that hadn't been seen in these parts since Dominique Wilkins was soaring through the air in the 1980s. Alas, each of the games in Boston was a blowout loss, demonstrating the importance of playing well enough in the regular season to get that extra home game during the postseason.
"A lot of the guys here had never experienced anything like that," said second-year center Al Horford, a leader on two championships teams at Florida before he joined a squad that had little experience winning anything. "They kind of saw what it takes to be in the playoffs, to make runs, to be part of the atmosphere and everything. This year, we came in with the mind-set that we wanted to be focused and really get it started good."
That they did, bolting to a 6-0 start that included three road wins. They've also kept up their strong play at home, winning 15 of their first 18 in Atlanta.
"It's a huge carry-over," coach Mike Woodson said. "I think pushing the Celtics to seven games put our team in a different light in terms of our approach. Our guys have a whole different attitude in terms of playing because they feel like ... if you can push those guys to seven games, there's not a team in this league you can't beat if you come out and play."
Atlanta's biggest improvement has been at the defensive end, a point of pride to a coach such as Woodson, who was an assistant on Detroit's rough-and-tumble championship team before joining the Hawks. Despite giving up a season high in the ugliest loss of the season, a 121-87 setback at Orlando on Friday night, their points-against average (96 a game) was still a significant improvement on last year's number (100.0).
Horford, who at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds is probably better suited for power forward, manages to hold his own at center through toughness, effort and emotion. Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson are big enough to help out on the inside, especially as they've gained a better understanding of rotations and defensive schemes, and quick enough to occasionally pop out on a guard.
"We know that defense wins championships," Horford said. "We learned from Boston and other teams that won it previously. That's the area we've improved the most on."
The other starter, Mike Bibby, also has made a major contribution. Acquired last season ahead of the trade deadline, he arrived in Atlanta struggling to get back in top condition after missing the first part of the season recovering from a thumb injury.
Still, Bibby filled the need's biggest hole - someone to run the offense - and provide an outside shooting threat to take some of the heat off Johnson, the team's scoring leader but often the focus of double-teaming and gimmick defenses.
"Bibby is healthier this year," Woodson said. "What he did for our team last year was on the fly. I have a great deal of respect for that man. For him to do everything he did for us on the fly was huge."
New general manager Rick Sund took a lot of heat after valuable sixth-man Josh Childress spurned the Hawks to sign with a team in Greece, but the major offseason additions - vets Maurice "Mo" Evans and Flip Murray - have provided strong play off the bench.
"Flip has played on good teams. Mo's played on good teams," Bibby said. "They know how to win."
This is what the Hawks had in mind when they gutted the roster before the 2004-05 season, deciding to build through the draft - even though they haven't picked an All-Star since the 1980s - and a prudent free-agent signing here and there.
Smith, Williams and Horford were all first-round picks. Johnson was lured away from Phoenix with the biggest contract in franchise history.
Those four make up a promising nucleus that could stick together for years, assuming the Hawks' ownership group is willing to dole out the money to keep them together - no guarantee in light of some legal and financial woes. Johnson is the oldest of the bunch at 27. Smith just turned 23, while Williams and Horford are only 22.
"All these guys are getting better," Woodson said. "If they continue to grow, we should continue to climb the charts."
Sure, there have been missteps along the way.
Williams was chosen ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 when the Hawks desperately needed a point guard. Atlanta tried to make up for its oversight by signing Speedy Claxton, but he's barely played during his three seasons with the Hawks. Shelden Williams was picked No. 5 overall when no one had him ranked that high, though he did serve a purpose by getting lumped into the package of players that brought Bibby from Sacramento.
Johnson is the team's undisputed star, though he hardly carries himself with the swagger of, say, a LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. There are still those who question whether Johnson is the sort of player a team should build around or more of a complementary piece to the puzzle, though he's averaged more than 20 points a game since he got to Atlanta.
"There's not a spectacular flair to him, other than he plays pretty good every possession," Denver coach George Karl said. "He's been efficient and very effective. He can post up and penetrate and pass. He's a good defender, maybe their best defender at the end of games. He's strong and sturdy, not spectacular. He can beat you in a lot of different ways."
As Friday night's loss demonstrated, the Hawks have yet to reach that elite level, the championship club occupied by teams such as Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers. Woodson is reluctant to play much more than an eight-man rotation, which can leave his players fatigued at the end of tight games. He knows he must develop more depth for the Hawks to make a serious run at the playoffs and beyond.
But it sure beats the alternative.
"Others teams think we're for real," Woodson said. "We ARE for real."