Dominique Wilkins

Opportunity Knocking
NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is a believer in these Hawks in this series..

By Jon Cooper

APRIL 29, 2008 -- On page 21 of the 2008 Hawks Playoff Media Guide, there lists the biggest upsets in the NBA Playoffs since 1984.

Up first, listed chronologically, are the three No. 8 seeds that knocked off No.1's. The Atlanta Hawks believe they can be the fourth and top entry on that pagecome the 2009 edition.

Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins does, too.

In fact, he is having fun watching the team come of age and is really enjoying this best-of-seven series, which has been reduced to a best-of-three. Having fun is something he believes has been a key to the Hawks' evening the series.

"You've got to have fun," said Wilkins, whose 26.4 points per game is the franchise record. "This is what basketball is about. Getting to this level and having a chance to knock off people. They've got a chance, just to take it one game at a time and play hard, stay focused. But more important, they've got to have fun."

While losing the first two games of the series by a total of 42 points wasn't fun for the young Hawks, Wilkins hinted that the two lopsided losses may actually have worked to their advantage.

"Sometimes teams think when they beat you the way [the Celtics] beat [the Hawks], that you're going to lay down and you're not going to do much. That you're basically going to die," said Wilkins, referring back to the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Atlanta lost the first two games by 18 total points, then won the next three, before losing the last two by a total of four points. "That's the same thing that happened when we played the Celtics back in the '80s.

"They beat us the first two games and basically thought they were going to come out and cruise," he continued. "But we knew we could win. That was the difference. I think these kids realize that they have an opportunity here and they have to take advantage of it."

Having held homecourt, the Hawks are starting to believe they can do just that.

"I think we've learned, we just trust each other," said center Al Horford, who is averaging 12.5 points and 11.5 boards in his first NBA Playoffs. "I think in
the first couple of games we kind of freaked out a little bit, made a big deal about it. Leads doesn't really mean anything because we were up and they came back on us. It's important for us to stay focused."

"We've just got to try to take advantage of some mismatches that we have," added Joe Johnson, the hero of Game Four, with a career-playoff-high 32 points, 20 of them in the fourth quarter. "We're so young and athletic that we can make it tough on a lot of teams. We've just got to keep playing. We've got nothing to lose and we've got everything to gain."

Wilkins believes that this attitude can counter the vociferous Boston crowd.

"The crowd is supposed to be hostile. They're supposed to root for their team," he said. "That's what you expect in playoff basketball. So it's not something that's out of the ordinary, you've never seen before. That's a part of it."

Wilkins remembered his first playoffs in 1983, coincidentally against Boston, which ended in Boston winning the decisive Game Three of the first round on the parquet of Boston Garden. Even though the Hawks lost that series, he still remembered how he embraced the atmosphere. 

"It's what I always wanted to be a part of," he recalled. "To have a chance to play against the best and going into the Boston Garden, hey, it's pandemonium in there and they had a very hostile crowd, basketball-knowledgable people. But that's what makes it fun and when you can beat them."

Josh Smith, who scored the 12 fourth-quarter points in Game Four that Johnson didn't, buys into Wilkins' mindset. He believes momentum is firmly on the Hawks' side.

"I think so," said Smith, who is averaging 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. "Winning Game Three was cool. They were thinking, 'Everything is still cool.' Then, winning Game Four, and they're starting to question themselves. It definitely gives us momentum to know that we can up to Boston and play with these guys. All we have to do is try to go up there and try to control the tempo of the game."

And ride Johnson's hot shooting.

Johnson, who shot 7-for-10 in the fourth quarter, 2-for-2 from three, laughed when asked about his Dominique-esque performance.

"'Nique is definitely the human highlight reel," he said. "I'm the same person I was. I'm still Joe."

So instead of cleaning out their lockers on Tuesday, as many thought they would, the Hawks flew to Boston for Game Five all even, knowing there'd be a Game Six back at Philips Arena. Wilkins believes that they will carry a lot less baggage on this trip to Boston than in their previous one to open the series. That baggage is now being carried by the Celtics.

"All the pressure is on Boston because everybody expects them to win it all," he said. "So we're in a good situation either way it goes. Let's come out and play."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Boston.