It’s not often that we have something happen in sports that has never happened before. But Wednesday night, the Atlanta Hawks actually will play in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Yes, the Hawks. Not the Chicago Bulls or the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat. The Hawks.
They won 60 games in the regular season. They have the No. 1 seed. But don’t blame anyone for still being a little shocked the Hawks have actually made it this far.
It has never happened before, so it might take awhile for this to settle in.
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Sure, the Hawks played in the series leading into the NBA Finals back in 1970. For some reason, they were in the Western Division back then. There were no conferences, just two divisions. The Los Angeles Lakers and Wilt Chamberlain swept the Hawks in four games.
But that was a bit different. There are now two conferences and six divisions. It’s a little more difficult now compared with 45 years ago when there were only 14 teams in the NBA.
This Hawks team played two tough series against teams that did not give up. The Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards both played well against Atlanta, but the Hawks showed they have the better team. And now, not a soul on Earth will give the Hawks much of a chance against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But why not? Well, he’s LeBron James. He’s going to get the national love. The expectation from the time he returned to Cleveland last summer was he would have the Cavs in this position. But that might actually help the Hawks. Maybe no one giving them a chance or much credit will inspire this team to shock the world.
And yes, having the Hawks in the NBA Finals would shock the world. They’ve shocked us all year, so why stop now?
Atlanta’s defense has been the key all season, and it again will be in this series. The Hawks have neutralized players, but can they do that to James? Well, if they keep him contained and he doesn’t go off for 40 points or more, that will put the pressure on the players around James to step up.
Kevin Love, the second best player for Cleveland, is out. Kyrie Irving, their other star, is banged up. They need to have players like Tristan Thompson to do well, and he could give the Hawks fits with his size and athleticism. But if Atlanta can control Irving, Cleveland will have to find points from someone else.
The great thing about Atlanta is that any one of four or five players can beat the opponent on a given night. They do not have a star but instead several players who can go off and be the leading scorer for a game.
The Wizards did a great job of not letting Kyle Korver beat them. He averaged just seven points per game in the series against the Wizards. But if Korver gets hot, he can carry this Atlanta team. And when Korver gets his shot going, it seems to make everyone else around him better, not to mention the fact it stirs up the crowd when he does it in Atlanta.
DeMarre Carroll has been outstanding in the playoffs. After averaging 12.6 points per game in the regular season, he leads the Hawks with 17.1 points per game in the playoffs. But Carroll’s biggest task likely won’t be to score. He gets to guard James, and the Hawks will count on Carroll to not let James single-handedly win the series.
Can Cleveland deal with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder when they are on the floor at the same time? That was a very effective strategy for the Hawks against the Wizards. Then there’s Paul Millsap and Al Horford. See, the Hawks have so many weapons. Sometimes not having a star actually might be a good thing.
This fairy tale is not over yet, and it won’t be for a while. The Hawks will win this series in six games. They have the defense, and they must feel good about themselves after an impressive series with Washington. The team concept will continue this magical season, and somehow we’ll be pinching ourselves again when the Hawks advance to the NBA Finals.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.