ATLANTA — There’s no bigger long shot in the NBA playoffs than the Atlanta Hawks.
Only the 15th team in the last two decades to make the postseason with a losing record, the Hawks (38-44) get started Saturday against the top seed in the East, the Indiana Pacers.
Good luck with that.
Then again, considering all the Hawks have been through, just making the playoffs for the seventh year in a row was quite a feat. The team has almost totally revamped its roster, broke in a rookie head coach, and lost top player Al Horford for most of the season.
Atlanta went into a terrible slump at the beginning of February, losing 20 of 26. But by winning seven of their last 10, the Hawks come into the playoffs of a bit of a roll even with that under-.500 mark.
Now, they are ready to show some fight against the Pacers, even if no one gives them much of a chance.
“We just wanted to end the season playing good basketball,” said guard Kyle Korver, who took on a leadership role after Horford went down with a torn pectoral muscle the day after Christmas. “We feel like we are playing about as well as we have played all year for the most part.”
No one on the active roster was around when the Hawks started their playoff streak – the longest current run in the Eastern Conference, remarkably enough – with a similar-looking team in 2008.
Those Hawks finally reaped some payoff from what had been a tortuous rebuilding process, sliding into the postseason with a 37-45 mark. Everyone figured they would get swept away in short order by the mighty Boston Celtics, who had the best record in the league that season (66-16) and would, indeed, go on to win the championship.
But Atlanta took the Celtics to seven games, throwing a bit of scare into the top seed though it was blown out all four times in Boston.
Now, the Hawks are faced with a comparable mountain to climb, though the Pacers (56-26) don’t look nearly as intimidating as the Celtics and their “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, especially with the way Indiana struggled down the stretch.
“It doesn’t matter who we are playing,” said Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, who did an admirable job in his first head coaching position after serving as a long-time assistant under San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. “We have high standards and we want to hold them up every night.”
The teams are meeting in the opening round for the second year in a row. Last year, Indiana beat up the Hawks on the way to a 4-2 series victory.
But Atlanta had success against the Pacers in the regular season, splitting four games this year. That included a stunning 107-88 victory at Indianapolis less than two weeks ago, when the Hawks held the home team to a franchise-low 23 points in the first half.
It was just one of the performances that made the Pacers look vulnerable over the last month or so, though they held off two-time defending champion Miami for the top seed in the East.
“We don’t have a big chip on our shoulders as far as trying to earn the one seed,” Indiana star Paul George said. “Now we’ve got the one seed and we can really just lock in on basketball and let everything else go. It’s time to chase after another goal of ours.”
A year ago, Horford made a surprising return from a similar injury during the playoff series against the Pacers. There’s no chance of the center playing again this season, so Pero Antic will have to bang with the Pacers. Atlanta also has gotten a boost from late-arriving rookie Mike Muscala, who scored a career-best 15 points in the regular-season finale against Milwaukee.
“I think Mike is just getting more and more comfortable understanding the system,” Budenholzer said.
Without a clear-cut star, the Hawks will need everyone to contribute if they want to become the fourth No. 8 seed in the past eight years to knock off a No. 1.