I repeat: The Atlanta Hawks took the NBA Champion Boston Celtics to seven games.
It's pretty amazing to look back at the 2008 Playoffs and realize that the Hawks did better against the Celtics in the First Round than the Lakers did in the Finals. Of course, Atlanta lost Game 7 by 44 points and the four games in Boston by no less than 19, but to say they exceeded expectations in 2007-08 would be an understatement.
After all, this was the team that, going into last season, had the longest (by far) running streak of seasons without a playoff appearance. On the NBA futility scale, they had dropped below the Clippers.
Now, after their first trip to the postseason in nine years, the expectations are different in Atlanta. The Hawks have improved their record, going from dismal to somewhat respectable, in each of the last three seasons.
But to take the next step, the Hawks will need to improve from within, because the only significant change they made this summer was replacing Greece-bound, sixth-man Josh Childress with Maurice Evans. If they're lucky, that's a wash.
Al Horford and Acie Law will improve in their second year, of course. Mike Bibby, who was acquired in February and was playing with a sore thumb, will be in Atlanta from the start and should be healthy. And Josh Smith, new contract in hand, is still just 22 years old.
But even if those players take steps forward, the Hawks will still need to grow as a team to be more than a First Round exit come April. They likely have to improve just to avoid heading back to the lottery come May.
On both ends of the floor, Atlanta was just an average team last year, ranking 16th offensively and 18th defensively when it comes to points (scored or allowed) per possession. And though they were a playoff team, they still finished eight games under .500, wildly inconsistent for much of the season.
"We're one of the top 16 teams in the league," Smith told the AJC (though fans of certain Western Conference teams would argue vehemently), "and we have to show that every single night and not just every three or four nights. That's our great challenge as a group and really for some of us as individuals, to play at a high level every night."
Consistency in the NBA starts with defense. And with their length and athleticism, the Hawks should strive to be like the Sixers, one of the best defensive teams in the league thanks to a penchant for forcing turnovers. They also must find a way rebound better. They were the fifth worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA last season, due in part to having the power positions manned by two guys (Horford and Smith) 6-10 or shorter.
Getting more takeaways, stops and boards is the clear path to improvement, because it will allow the Hawks to get out in transition more often. And that's where they're at their best.
Other teams in the Eastern Conference have made improvements, but a higher seed is there for the taking if the Hawks can build upon their success of last season, no matter how small a taste it was.
-- John Schuhmann