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Posted: Wednesday November 12, 2008 11:24AM; Updated: Wednesday November 12, 2008 11:13PM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >

Hawks learned lesson from Celtics

Story Highlights

Last season's narrow playoff loss to the Celtics has given the Hawks confidence

Boston gave Atlanta a firsthand look at what championship defense is all about

The Hawks rank among the defensive leaders during their impressive start

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Josh Smith (shown here challenging Dwight Howard) and the Hawks have played stout defense early in the season.
Josh Smith (shown here challenging Dwight Howard) and the Hawks have played stout defense early in the season.
Doug Benc/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Sometimes a painful defeat can be the best teacher in the world. Just ask the Atlanta Hawks.

Seven months after shocking the NBA by extending the Celtics to seven games in last year's first round of the playoffs, the Hawks have used the memory of that near-miss to fuel a 6-1 start. While Atlanta might not yet be ready to take down Boston -- the Celtics won Wednesday night's meeting 103-102 in Boston on a last-second Paul Pierce jumper -- it has definitely picked up where it left off a year ago.

"We believe in ourselves," Hawks guard Joe Johnson said. "I think the series against Boston really gave us confidence. We look at every game a little differently now. We're more focused, more intense, more in tune with what's going on."

Atlanta can point to several on-court factors for its success: Johnson's All-Star-caliber play; Mike Bibby's leadership; Al Horford's muscle; Josh Smith's athleticism; the additions of veterans Flip Murray and Maurice Evans to the bench; and a suffocating team defense.

But coach Mike Woodson also believes the experience of facing the Celtics in the postseason has had a major boost psychologically on his young team.

"It had a huge carryover," he said. "I mean, you hear all the media people talk about how you're not even going to win a game, and you wind up winning three and forcing a Game 7, which hadn't happened very often in history of our game, [let alone] from a young team like ours. It was huge.

"Then the way our fans showed up in Philips Arena and showed their support, it meant a great deal to our players. They fed off that. It left a good taste in their mouths."

For Woodson, the benefit of that Celtics series wasn't just in terms of confidence. He believes his team also got to see firsthand the importance of team defense, something he had been preaching for four years.

"Everybody looks at Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, three great players," Woodson said. "But it was their defense and rebounding that won that title last year. From Day One, in exhibition season, [Boston] took pride in defending and rebounding, and it carried over to the regular season. That's why they were the best team in the regular season.

"Our guys, after going through that seven-game series, they knew after the first two games in Boston, that's how it's got to be played. And when we came home, we played exactly how they played us. It was a nice carryover to this year because they know that defense won it for Boston, and the only [way] we will have a chance to be in the same arena is if we defend and rebound too."

Johnson agrees that the Hawks have brought a new mindset to defense this season. Known in the past for being somewhat lackadaisical on that end of the floor, Atlanta held its first five opponents to 85, 88, 79, 92 and 85 points. At that point they ranked second in the NBA in points allowed (85.8) and third in field goal percentage allowed (.404).

The defense wasn't quite as dominating in its last two performances on the road, against the Bulls (a 113-108 victory) on Tuesday night and against the Celtics on Wednesday night, but the Hawks were able to lock it down for stretches in both games. Against Boston, in the second game of a back-to-back, Atlanta came up with several key stops down the stretch before Pierce nailed a 20-foot jumper over Horford's outstretched arm with 0.5 seconds left to win the game. Considering the Hawks were also playing without the injured Josh Smith (ankle), it was an impressive performance.

"To be a good team in this league, you've got to be pretty good defensively," Johnson said. "We're helping one another, talking, communicating on defense, keeping guys in the right spots and every play down court staying vocal. That's the main thing. We talk and communicate."

It's still far too early to say the Hawks have turned the corner. Two years ago, they started 4-1 only to lose six of their next seven games. Even last season, they put together two separate five-game winning streaks before reverting back to bad habits.

But there is something about this season's team that looks a little tougher and more determined. It's almost as if the embers of last spring's playoff inferno, though doused by the Celtics, are still smoldering. It also doesn't hurt that few experts picked Atlanta to get back to the playoffs this season.

"Not listening to the naysayers, and just coming out and having fun," Johnson said of Atlanta's approach during the franchise's best start since opening 11-0 in 1997-98. "We've been playing with confidence from Day One."

Said Woodson: "We're a different basketball team. This team had a little taste of success last year against the world champs. We're hungry now."

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