The Atlanta Hawks haven't finished with a winning season since 1999, and are also owners of the league's longest postseason drought. But if this season's first two games are any indication, that could change.
The improving Hawks face a third straight playoff team to start the new campaign as they play the New Jersey Nets on Tuesday night.
Atlanta (1-1) has averaged nearly 55 losses in the eight seasons since the franchise's last playoff appearance in 1999. The Hawks went 30-52 last season.
With a young nucleus built around All-Star guard Joe Johnson, Atlanta has shown plenty of improvement in splitting its first two games. The Hawks won 101-94 over Dallas - the team that finished with the best record in the West last season - on Friday before a 92-91 loss two days later at Detroit, which led the East with 53 wins in 2006-07.
Atlanta let a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter slip away Sunday, but there were some positive signs. The Hawks rallied from a late seven-point deficit to tie the game at 91 before falling short.
"That's the best team in the East we played tonight, and we hung in there," Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. "We'll bounce back, but tonight they made the plays down the stretch and we didn't."
Third-year forward Marvin Williams and fourth-year forward Josh Smith have both enjoyed strong starts to the season. Williams is averaging 19.0 points on just over 59 percent shooting, while Smith has a pair of double-doubles after he had 13 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks on Sunday.
While the average age of Johnson, Williams and Smith is about 23, the Nets' "Big Three" of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson have a decided edge in experience with an average age of 30. New Jersey has fallen in the East semifinals in two straight years.
The veteran Nets bounced back with a 93-88 win on Saturday against Philadelphia one night after they were routed at home by Toronto, 106-69.
"The best thing that could have happened to this team was to come out here tonight and, not prove yourself, but just redeem yourself more than anything," Jefferson said.
Jefferson led all scorers with 22 against Philadelphia, and is fifth in the NBA on the young season with 26.0 points per game - one spot ahead of Johnson, who is averaging 25.5 points.
Venerable New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd stole the spotlight, however, notching his 50th triple-double as a Net and 88th overall by compiling 16 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
Although Carter turned in another poor-shooting effort by making 4-of-12 shots for 18 points, the Nets' bench picked up the slack with 31 points.
"That's an advantage we have this year and I think the bench proved in this game it doesn't have to be Vince or R.J. to make a big shot," reserve forward Bostjan Nachbar said. "It can be somebody else.''
Carter is off to a slow start, shooting just under 31 percent and averaging 16.3 points - nearly eight below his career average.
The Nets won two of three games against the Hawks last season, and have won 10 of the last 11 meetings at home.
Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited