ATLANTA (AP) - Josh Smith, who was there for the worst of seasons, sat at his locker pondering the much-improved state of the Atlanta Hawks."How many games did we win last year?" he asked.
Thirty-seven, someone replied.
"Well, we're only six games behind that," Smith quickly deduced. "That just shows the maturity and hard work in the offseason to get us where we are right now."
Yep, the Hawks are sitting pretty at the All-Star break, holding down the all-important fourth spot in the Eastern Conference with a 31-21 record - their best mark at this point in the season since 1996-97.
Atlanta went 37-45 a year ago, which doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider where the Hawks were coming from. The went 13-69 during the 2004-05 season, Smith's rookie year.
Showing steady, if somewhat tedious progress, the Hawks improved each of the next three years, culminating with their first trip to the playoff this millennium. They took advantage of it, too, taking the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a memorable opening-round series last spring.
Building off that performance, the Hawks started this season with six straight wins. Even with a few bumps and stalls along the way, they have clearly established themselves as the best of the bunch in the East after the Big Three of Boston, Cleveland and Orlando, each way out front in the respective division races.
"We've got a lot of guys that are hungry (from) last year after getting a taste of success in the first round against the world champs," coach Mike Woodson said after the Hawks closed the first half in style, winning 99-95 at Detroit on Wednesday night.
The Hawks didn't make any major additions after last season; in fact, they lost valuable sixth man Josh Childress, who shockingly spurned Atlanta's offer to sign with a team in Greece.
But new general manager Rick Sund filled that hole with a couple of players, signing journeymen Flip Murray and Maurice Evans. Both have played major roles off the bench along with backup center Zaza Pachulia.
Murray, playing with its sixth team in seven NBA seasons, is one of six players averaging in double figures (10.9 points a game), providing Woodson with a combo guard who can spell either Mike Bibby at the point or leading scorer Joe Johnson at the shooting spot.
Johnson, who's heading the All-Star Game for the third year in a row, is the Hawks' most prominent player but Bibby might be the most valuable. That was apparent last weekend when Bibby sat out a game with an injured foot - and Atlanta lost by 24 points at home to the woeful Los Angeles Clippers.
Bibby returned to play the last two games before the break, and the Hawks won both.
"He's a big part of what we have done," Woodson said. "He was one of the main reasons we were able to push into the playoffs (last season). I think the guys like playing with him. He makes things happen on the floor by scoring with the basketball, and passing the open guys when needed. In that regard, it's very good to have him on the floor."
Bibby, the team's oldest starter at age 30, was acquired from Sacramento almost exactly one year ago with the Hawks floundering and looking as though they would miss the playoffs for the ninth year in a row. He wasn't in very good shape, having been sidelined by thumb and heel injuries, and was unfamiliar with Woodson's system.
Still, just having a legitimate point guard - the first in Atlanta since Mookie Blaylock - proved to be just what the Hawks needed. Finally, they had someone who could distribute the ball to a bunch of talented youngsters such as Johnson, Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford.
"I couldn't have been happier," Woodson recalled. "Even knowing that he had missed camp and he was still nursing his hand from the injury, shoot, that didn't matter. It was a point guard that was capable of running a basketball team."
After acquiring Bibby, the Hawks' scoring average jumped dramatically (94.8 to 103.5) and they essentially clinched the final playoff spot in the East by ripping off 11 victories in 15 games starting in mid-March. Then, in a move that appeared calculated, the veteran called out Boston's fans as front-runners during the playoffs, drawing the wrath of Beantown while taking the heat off his younger teammates.
Bibby's tactics didn't lead to a monumental upset, but Atlanta surprised everyone - maybe even themselves - by winning all three games at Philips Arena.
"We've learned a lot from playing in that series against Boston. They have kind of made us who we are," Woodson said. "I say to these guys all the time: If you can take Boston to seven game, there's no team in this league you can't beat."
Mindful of the four blowout losses in Boston, Woodson's main goal coming into this season was to get home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Hawks are positioned well to open the postseason at home, going into the final night of games before the break with a 3 1/2-game lead over Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit, all fighting it out for the No. 5 spot.
"If it takes 45 or 50 games to secure home court, that's what we're going to shoot for," Woodsoon said. "I'm interested in trying to host first-round playoffs here in Atlanta so we don't have to go out on the road and experience what we experienced in the first round last season."
No matter what, the Hawks have come a long way from 13 wins.