Joe Johnson was right. Legends are made in the playoffs.
And his show-stopping performance under the bright lights Sunday at Philips Arena ranks right up there with some of the best the Hawks have seen.
Johnson torched the Miami Heat and led his team to a 91-78 blowout win in Game 7 as the Hawks won a playoff series for the first time since 1999.
The Hawks won their first seven-game series in 39 years as Johnson woke up from a series-long slumber to carry them into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland. That series begins Tuesday night in Cleveland.
"This is what it looked like in my head," Johnson said of the visions he had of helping resurrect a franchise that was an afterthought when he showed up four years ago on the heels of a 13-69 season. "The packed house, the fans going nuts and us playing in meaningful games. This is a special feeling, to be out there in a game like this and knowing that we're moving on to the next round."
The Hawks are moving on because of the offensive and defensive showcase Johnson and his teammates put on Sunday against the Heat. They led by as many as 29 points in a game that was decided early in the fourth quarter.
Johnson outplayed Heat superstar Dwyane Wade, and his teammates followed suit, wearing out the Heat on both ends of the floor in the seventh straight blowout of the series.
Johnson finished with a team-high 27 points on 10-for-19 shooting. He made six of his eight shots from beyond the 3-point line, including two over Wade in a 45-second stretch in the second quarter that allowed the Hawks to turn a back-and-forth affair into yet another rout.
"They got hot," Wade said. "They got their star, Joe, to hit 40-foot 3-pointers. And when that happens it's a tough night."
Johnson did more than that, though. He also had five rebounds and five steals, two while guarding Wade one-on-one in a matchup of All-Stars that had been one-sided, in Wade's favor, in every game until Sunday.
"He's the foundation of our team," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said of Johnson, a three-time All-Star. "We've built around Joe Johnson, and here he is in his fourth year now, going into the second round of the playoffs, and that speaks volumes for Joe Johnson."
Still, until Sunday, Johnson looked like anything but himself. He reached or exceeded his regular-season scoring average of 21.4 points just one time, and that was with the aid of 15 free-throw attempts in the Hawks' Game 4 win. The Heat's defensive scheme included two and sometimes three defenders assigned to stop him. They succeeded up until Game 7.
"I think when you're getting double- and triple-teamed it's not as easy as you think when you're out there playing," Woodson said. "I think Joe survived this series. And he couldn't have had a better game in grand style, on national TV, in front of his fans winning Game 7. That's huge."
For a team that didn't play a national TV game for four years before last year's first-round playoff series against Boston, the turnaround in the past year has been nothing short of remarkable.
"These are the days you live for," said Hawks forward Josh Smith, who pounded the Heat for 21 points and a team-high nine rebounds. "To see where we've come from to where we are now is crazy. And this isn't some Cinderella story. We've worked for every bit of this. We earned the right to be here. And now we're moving on to the next round."
Hawks vs. Cavaliers
Tue.: at Cleveland, 8 p.m., TNT
Thu.: at Cleveland, 8 p.m., ESPN
Sat.: at Atlanta, 8 p.m., ABC
May 11: at Atlanta, 7 p.m., ESPN
May 13*: at Cleveland, TBA, TNT
May 15*: at Atlanta, TBA, ESPN
May 18*: at Cleveland, 8 p.m., TNT
* if necessary. All games on 790 AM