Losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals was going to be disappointing no matter how many games it took for LeBron James and the rest of the Finals-bound squad to knock out the Atlanta Hawks. The fact that the No. 1 seed was swept just added insult to the many injuries.
But no matter how upsetting the last four games may have been, that doesn’t make the rest of the 2014-15 campaign a disappointment. Nothing could be further from the truth for a team that made believers out of a long-suffering fanbase.
After an elimination, it’s natural to look forward.
We can debate endlessly about who the Hawks should draft with the No. 15 pick on June 25 (my money’s on Wisconsin small forward Sam Dekker). We can wonder whether the front office will bring back DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap, as well as how much money each will drain from the franchise’s coffers. We can speculate about whether Walter Tavares will play for the Hawks next season or continue thriving for Gran Canaria in the Spanish ACB.
But before focusing on the future, let’s reminisce fondly on what was truly a special season.
Most obviously, the Hawks piled up a franchise-record 60 wins while capturing the division title for the first time in 21 years. Bob Pettit, Dominque Wilkins, Lou Hudson and the other legends who have worn Atlanta—or St. Louis—uniforms never managed to touch that milestone, and that came despite a slow start to the season.
Even that doesn’t give the Hawks enough credit. It was about the journey just as much as the record at the end of 82 games, even if that final tally and the advancement to the first Eastern Conference Finals in team history are both very much worth remembering.
Prior to this season, Joe Johnson, Paul Millsap and Al Horford were the only Atlanta players to earn All-Star bids in the last decade. Millsap and Horford both added another appearance to their totals, and they were joined in the midseason festivities by Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver.
All four had truly impressive seasons.
The big men showed off their versatilty on both ends and seemed to alternate functioning as the beating heart of this team. Horford flashed his trademark mid-range jump on countless occasions, leaving no doubt in fans’ minds that he was going to find twine when he cocked out his elbow and released. Millsap’s pump fake devastated opponents all season long, even when they knew it was coming.
Meanwhile, Teague thrived in the backcourt, showing off an improved floater on his countless bursts to the backcourt. Korver basically reached folk hero status in Atlanta with his remarkable pursuit of a 50/50/90 season and inability to miss triples, especially during the first half of the season.
Oh, and he threw down three times—even more impressive when considering that, prior to this transition slam, the 34-year-old hadn’t dunked once since 2012-13:
But let’s not leave the fifth starter out.
DeMarre Carroll wasn’t an All-Star, but he was arguably the Hawks’ best player during the playoffs, even dropping more than 20 points in six consecutive games against the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. Plus, he, along with the other four starters, was named an NBA Player of the Week after the Hawks’ perfect month of January.
That was certainly another highlight of the season, as the Hawks became the first team in NBA history to go 17-0 in a single month. They just kept earning double-digit leads and closing out the opposition as the wins piled up. Ultimately, January was part of a larger 19-0 stretch that will go down as the longest stretch of unbeaten play in franchise history.
The previous mark? Fourteen wins in a row, back in 1993. This was only the 10th time the Hawks had hit double digits while streaking, and the first since 2010.
Somehow, the most memorable victory didn’t even come while the Hawks were quite literally unbeatable.
After a monstrous Anthony Davis performance helped the New Orleans Pelicans hand Atlanta its first dropped game since Dec. 26, the team rebounded against the Washington Wizards to go into a marquee Feb. 6 matchup with the Golden State Warriors on a high note. It was a true clash of titans, as the two conference leaders met while both were fully healthy and raring to go.
Behind seven players scoring in double figures and five triples from Korver, the Hawks defended Philips Arena from the onslaughts of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. It was a tight game throughout, but Atlanta was able to pull away in the fourth quarter and wrest away the best record in the league from the Dubs.
Oftentimes, you hear that certain regular-season contests have “playoff atmospheres.”
This one didn’t, but only becuase it had the distinct feel of an NBA Finals clash. There was hype more than a week before the game actually took place, the Highlight Factory was rocking from start to finish and you could easily tell just how much every single player wanted the validation that would come with this victory.
Of course, that wasn’t the only time Philips Arena was raucous.
As the team made clear in a letter to fans after their elimination in the playoffs’ penultimate round, “We had the largest increase in attendance in the NBA and sold out Philips Arena 32 of the last 35 games…We achieved record broadcast ratings on both television and radio, including the top 5 most-watched Hawks basketball games in club history. We created an awe-inspiring and imposing home court environment, with an Eastern Conference-best 35-6 record at home.”
The belief didn’t come to fruition, but the Hawks’ greatest achievement in 2014-15 was simply making the city of Atlanta care. And not just the type of caring that involves tuning into the biggest games of the season, but the kind that leads to sold-out arenas, heavily watched broadcasts and a level of day-to-day discussion unlike anything this franchise has witnessed in years.
That can’t be erased.
These Hawks were not pretenders. The playoffs didn’t expose them, so much as highlight what could happen during a prolonged shooting slump coupled with injuries plaguing a rotation that thrived on consistency. No matter what happens this offseason, it seems to be a safe assumption that Mike Budenholzer, now the reigning Coach of the Year, will ensure his squad remains competitive.
But even if Atlanta somehow tops the achievements of the bunch Atlanta came to know and love throughout the past season, submitting a campaign that’s any more memorable is going to be a difficult task.
Let this one live on, Hawks fans, even as you mourn an unfortunate ending to a remarkably fun season.