The Time is Now - By Jon Cooper

The Time Is Now
The Hawks believe that the pieces are in place to make the jump to the elite.
By Jon Cooper

Heading into the 2008-09 season there was lingering mystery and skepticism surrounding the legitimacy of the Atlanta Hawks and their previous year's seven-game, first-round series with the Boston Celtics.

A rallying cry of sorts, 'Now you know,' was born, even if it didn't completely silence the skeptics.

A 47-win regular season (the most wins in 11 years) and a Playoff series victory later (the team's first in a decade) there is no excuse for anyone not knowing who the Atlanta Hawks are.

With the taste of the sweep in the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the hand of the Cleveland Cavaliers, still in their mouths, there is no excuse for the Atlanta Hawks not knowing who they are and how far they can go in their pursuit of a championship.

"Just like we left the playoff series against the Celtics, the Cleveland series left a lot of things that needed to be addressed and answered," said Head Coach Mike Woodson. "I think we've made a step in that direction now."

In their way is the weight of real expectations.

"I think it's good pressure if anything," said forward Al Horford. "I think people have confidence in us but we have to believe in ourselves. That's the most important thing. We have to come out here and show what we have."

"It feels good just to have people finally talking about Atlanta and not in a bad way," said forward Josh Smith, who was a rookie in 2004-05, when the Hawks managed just 13 wins. "I think this organization and myself have come a long way. The fans are seeing that we're trying to do something in this league and we're trying to get respect."

Forward Marvin Williams believes the Hawks may have a greater hunger heading into this season than they did heading into last season.

"I think guys really want to take that next step," said Williams, a major re-signing by the team during the summer. "It was a great run. Obviously we didn't end the way we wanted to, getting swept by Cleveland. I think the main thing is guys really have to have that hunger. I think when we lost that Boston series guys really got that hunger that summer. That taste of the playoffs was really big for us young guys. We saw how fun it was for us and we came back last year and had a good time."

"We can go farther," said center Zaza Pachulia, who also chose to return to Atlanta rather than test the free-agent market. "Adding guys like Jamal [Crawford] and Jeff Teague, and keeping MIke [Bibby] and me and Marvin and bringing in big guys like Jason [Collins] and Joe [Smith], we have a good chance to show what we've got and show what we can do.

"We're young but we have been here for a long time," he added. "We've grown, as individuals and professionals and we've seen everything. We've seen the losing years and the winning years and the playoffs. We've seen that we can get better. We can win games. That's where we want to be. Unfortunately, you can't stay like this forever. Time is going so we have to make something happen, go even farther. We should use this opportunity that we have right now."

That Williams and Pachulia, who came in the year after Smith and have been key pieces in the Hawks building process, use the word 'we' in referring to the Hawks showed the team's commitment to keeping he core of the team together.

"Keeping the nucleus together for a long period of time equals success," said Smith, who was the key re-signing last off-season. "It was big that we kept the same guys here that we've had for the last three or four years. That creates a family environment and definitely a good atmosphere."

But bringing back the nucleus didn't mean they stood pat. The Hawks went out and added fire power in versatile guard Jamal Crawford, acquired in a trade from Golden State for point guards Acie Law and "Speedy" Claxton, then added some muscle and experience by signing free-agent big men Jason Collins (Minnesota) and Joe Smith (Cleveland).

The acquisitions of Smith and Collins were big not only in the way opposing teams perceive the Hawks, but also in the way future free agents perceive the city of Atlanta. It's a city that can attract free agents who want to win. Until recently, that hadn't been the case.

"That's one thing about sports, once you get something good going, people want to be a part of it," said Smith. "The last few years [the Hawks have] improved, they've gotten better and now you have guys that want to come here and want to be a part of this team because of that. For a veteran, seeing a group of young guys getting better like that, it makes you want to be a part of something like that, to help them get over that hump."

That hump is quite formidable, in the form of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic, the last three defending Eastern Conference champions. First comes the Magic.

"I think that's the goal," said Williams. "You win the division you're obviously going to be at home during the playoffs. That's big. But Orlando's always going to be tough. We definitely have our work cut out for us."

"Now we have players that want to play for us," added Josh Smith. "That's all with becoming successful and people being down for the movement."

That movement starts at Philips Arena tonight.

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

Photos by Scott Cunningham.