Posted Apr 30 2010 9:59AM
ATLANTA -- Time is running out for the Hawks and their coach, Mike Woodson.
The Hawks aren't guaranteed anything beyond their next 48 minutes of play, and neither is Woodson, whose contract ends the moment the Hawks' season does. But if Woodson is going out -- and after three straight losses in their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the rumblings about his departure are stronger than ever -- he will go out his way.
Facing a close-out situation in Game 6 Friday night on the Bucks' home floor, Woodson insists he will stay the course. There will be no major change in the Hawks' defensive approach, no wrinkles in what they do on offense or in how they plan to deal with a team that has snatched the momentum in this series from the higher-seeded Hawks.
"We'll tweak it and make some adjustments, but I just don't think from a defensive standpoint that we have to do something crazy," Woodson said. "Maybe I'm stubborn in that regard. But when I look back [at Game 5], I thought defensively we were fine. I really believe that. When you hold a nine-point lead with 3:54 on the clock, you've got to believe you can close that out and be ready for Game 6 at their place."
Instead, Game 6 has turned into what could be the final referendum on Woodson's six-year tenure running the Hawks.
Despite winning 53 games this season, the best season the franchise has seen in 12 years, Hawks general manager Rick Sund and the Atlanta Spirit ownership group never approached Woodson about an extension. A first-round flame out against the Bucks, playing with a sensational rookie point guard in Brandon Jennings and without its most valuable player in Andrew Bogut, means Woodson could be shown the door instead of starting negotiations on a new contract.
The Hawks have lost 10 of 11 postseason road games the past three seasons. Woodson has to find a way to get his team over that hurdle and into a Game 7 on its home floor Sunday. Or things could get very ugly.
"Nobody's focus is on anything but winning Game 6 and getting back here for Game 7," Hawks forward Marvin Williams said when asked if he realized they will take the floor tonight with Woodson's fate in the balance. "Coach has never discussed his status with us, it's never been an issue. The same way none of our situations [as free agents] has ever been a part of our daily discussions as a team. We have a job to do right now and that's fight off elimination."
Woodson's six years with the Hawks have been interesting, to say the least. He inherited a re-made roster and won just 13 games his first season. He survived a nasty ownership dispute that is still going on today. He survived an ugly dustup with his longtime friend Billy Knight, the man who hired him only to try to oust him on three different occasions before stepping down as general manager after the Hawks' playoff series against Boston three years ago.
Woodson is constantly the subject of "coach-on-the-hot-seat" speculation, but no coach in the Eastern Conference has been on his job longer.
Woodson and the Hawks have come a long way from that 13-win season, yet he and the team remain on shaky ground. As steady as the Hawks' rise has been under Woodson -- he's the first coach in league history whose team has improved its record after each of the first five seasons -- it could all come to an end Friday at the Bradley Center.
"I don't think like that," Woodson said. "That's just now how I am wired. This is a seven-game series and I've prepared my team to play all seven games. We'll see what we're made of. But I'm not putting any of this extra stuff on my team going into [Game 6]. They don't need that. I've taken arrows for six years now and that's fine. That's part of the job. But I don't panic, man. That's just not who I am."
Like Woodson, Hawks' captain and four-time All-Star Joe Johnson will be a free agent this summer, too. While there is no indication that his fate is tied to Woodson's, there is little chance one will return without the other.
Woodson's first contract was up three years ago, after he guided the Hawks to their first playoff appearance in 11 years. Johnson was the one player that spoke out in support of his coach before Woodson was rewarded with a two-year extension.
"People like to blame you for everything that goes wrong but you have to get some of the credit, too, right?" Johnson said recently when asked about the tumultuous nature of both he and Woodson's careers with the Hawks. "We've won a lot of games around here the past few years and everybody has had a hand in that. From where we came from to now ... you can't just dismiss that."
Woodson's name already has surfaced in reports about the vacant coaching job in Philadelphia. His friend and mentor, Bobcats coach Larry Brown, has been rumored to be a candidate to take over as the 76ers team president, paving the way for him to hire Woodson as his coach.
Woodson dismissed the idea, insisting that he wants only to finish what he started with the Hawks six years ago.
"I said when they hired me here that we could win a championship for this franchise, the fans and the city of Atlanta," he said. "I've never wavered from that. I've always maintained that focus and I will until I'm no longer the coach here."
That day could come sooner rather than later.
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