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Posted: Friday November 21, 2008 11:26AM; Updated: Friday November 21, 2008 12:49PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

Hawks might be a winner at last

Story Highlights

Joe Johnson's leadership, Marvin Williams' development have helped lift Atlanta

The Hawks have done well to survive tough early schedule and Josh Smith's injury

More topics: Chauncey Billups pays off in Denver; Derrick Rose the East's top PG?

5 Reasons to believe in the Hawks

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Guard Joe Johnson is relishing his role as the Hawks' No. 1 option in crunch time.
AP
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Their sixth man is in Greece, their power forward is injured, they lost four games in a row -- and they were 7-4 through Thursday.

5. Joe Johnson is a star. Really. Johnson admits he was in over his head when he arrived in Atlanta as its free-agent savior in 2005-06. "All my career I was pretty much a big-time role player,'' the 27-year-old shooting guard said. "When I got thrown into this leadership role, it was a tough one, but it was something I had to adjust to and something I was willing to adjust to. It was tough, don't get me wrong, but every year I've learned something different, and I've gotten better.''

As Johnson sees it, he started turning the corner when the Hawks acquired point guard Mike Bibby at the trade deadline last season. Though Bibby wasn't quite his old self -- he was coming off a left-thumb injury and would average just 13.9 points in 48 games for the season -- he was nonetheless the most accomplished, cutthroat teammate Johnson had known in his three years with Atlanta.

"When we got Mike, I started to elevate my game a lot more," Johnson said, "because he was a guy who can make a shot -- he can create not only for himself but for his teammates as well. He helped me out because the defense had to play more honest, and then I was being more aggressive.''

Johnson leveraged Bibby's presence to average 20.0 points in the playoffs while hitting one big shot after another in the Hawks' three home victories of their opening-round series with the Celtics. He has built on that fortnight to average 25.3 points (fourth best in the league) this season with 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals -- the kind of elite production the Hawks originally envisioned.

"He's reaching the point when the game is on the line that he wants to take over,'' Hawks general manager Rick Sund said. "His focus in practice is good, he knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he plays hard in every facet, whether it's on defense or coming up with the rebound.''

Now Johnson is the kind of finisher who provides confidence to his young teammates: If they do the little things, he'll take care of the big ones. He does his scoring without doing harm to the team, because at heart he's a playmaker who takes pride in sharing the ball and rebounding his position.

He has no problem admitting that he was unprepared to fulfill his leadership responsibilities over the first two years in Atlanta.

"I had no idea,'' he said. "It was a business move.''

Johnson is finally escaping his reputation as a player who left a winning team in Phoenix in order to make more money with a loser in Atlanta. The truth, he says, is that he didn't fully understand the challenge he was taking on.

"I figured sooner or later we would turn out to be a pretty good team,'' he said. "In the playoffs last year, it just brought me so much joy to be able to experience that again."

Winning, he means.

4. Mike Woodson has a new boss. Former GM Billy Knight often traveled with the Hawks, and last year the players could sense tension between him and Woodson, Atlanta's coach since 2004-05. Their conflicts became public when Sekou Smith of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the news last February that Knight had been blocked in three attempts to fire Woodson.

Knight instead was replaced last summer by Sund, a former GM of the Sonics, Pistons and Mavericks. On those rare trips when Sund travels with the team, there is none of last year's conflict.

"We were a team ready for some change and some continuity at all levels,'' said Sund, who represented the change, with Woodson, who signed a two-year extension last June, providing the continuity.

The Hawks appeared to be in trouble last summer when sixth man Josh Childress left the NBA to sign with the Euroleague club Olympiakos of Greece. But instead of complaining, Woodson has been grateful for new reserves Flip Murray and Mo Evans, who are averaging a combined 20.8 points.

"They are the veteran guys that we didn't have the last few years coming off our bench,'' Woodson said.

3. Their players are the same height. Knight used to be skewered for acquiring the same-sized players year after year; now that the Hawks are winning, the vision is beginning to make sense. For starters, they're able to switch defensively without suffering mismatches.

"It's one of the strengths of the Hawks, and something I tried to do in Seattle,'' Sund said. "I love players who are multipositional. Joe Johnson can play the 3, and Marvin Williams can play the 2. Josh Smith is a 4-3. [Al] Horford is a 5-4. Anytime you have players who are multitalented and versatile, that helps your team.''

Williams used to serve as a reminder of Knight's biggest blunder: He chose Williams with the No. 2 pick in 2005, when the Hawks might have taken point guards Deron Williams or Chris Paul instead. This year, Williams has extended his range out to the three-point line, where he has made 13-of-23 to rank third in the league at 56.5 percent. At 22, he hasn't stopped improving; he may develop his post-up game and ball-handling in the years ahead. In the meantime, the Hawks are advised to continue running more plays for a small forward who is beginning to realize how good he can become.

2. Horford is indeed a center. The case can be made that the 6-10 Horford should shift to his college position of power forward, but he is just as effective at center. He ranks in the upper teens in the league at either spot. He should continue forming a dynamic partnership with Smith, a shot-blocking power forward who has missed all but four games with a high ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him for a month.

"Josh is one of the few players in this league who has the ability to be part [Scottie] Pippen and part Ben Wallace,'' Sund said. "He can be Pippen when he switches out front, because he's quick and rangy the way Pippen was. He can be Ben Wallace with his shot-blocking and if he improves his rebounding, which is one of his goals. I think he could make the All-Star team based on his defense, the way Wallace and Pippen did.''

1. The worst of the early season is almost behind them. Their surprising 6-0 start was crucial because it renewed confidence in Woodson. It took a Paul Pierce buzzer-beater in Boston to end Atlanta's winning streak.

Never mind the four-game losing streak that ensued. They've earned a winning record despite this run of 10 road games among their opening 16. Next month, Atlanta could press ahead with a rare stretch of eight consecutive home games. After years of false promise, the Hawks might be a winner at last.

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