Fortunately, Ted Turner does not have to colorize his Atlanta Hawks the way he has his super-station's library of old black-and-white movies. The Hawks are a collection of mostly tall (though one tiny) and talented Technicolor dunkers who are much more of a Lethal Weapon than, say, a Maltese Falcon. Further, they could present a formidable prechampionship-round challenge for the Boston Celtics, who haven't been knocked out of the playoffs before the finals since 1983. "We're not there yet," says Atlanta point guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers. "All we have is a good record, and the Celtics have all those rings on their fingers."
Ah, but the Hawks may have bells on their toes. For more than a month they have been the NBA's hottest team. Through Saturday they had won five in a row and 21 of their last 25 games. They've beaten the Celtics three times this season (albeit not at Boston Garden); they've dominated Western Conference teams (against which they are 19-5, including a 1-1 split with the Lakers); and they've apparently severed Milwaukee's six-year stranglehold on the Central Division. After a 101-99 victory over Detroit on Friday night in Atlanta, the 53-24 Hawks had the league's third-best record behind guess who and guess who, and were on the verge of clinching the Central Division title. Perhaps the Central at last has a June contender instead of just April pretenders.
At times, however, the Hawks display a disturbing capacity for self-destruction, blowing big leads or failing to put teams away when they've had them on the ropes. "Those are the type of games an L.A. or a Boston wins," said Rivers. Added John Lucas, of the Milwaukee Bucks, to whom the Hawks blew a big lead and lost two weeks ago: " Boston is a great basketball team. Atlanta is a great athletic team. There's a difference, particularly at playoff time."
But vive la diff�rence! The Celtics, all staid tradition; the Hawks, all rambunctious youth. Consider all the things Atlanta has that Boston doesn't:
1) A team music video, entitled Nothing Can Stop Us, We're Atlanta's Air Force. This particular piece of cultural schlock is harmless enough, and it provides an opportunity for Rivers to perform his Stevie Wonder impression.
2) The 1985 and '86 slam-dunk champions in Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, respectively.
3) A president-general manager, Stan Kasten, who actually knows Glenn Hubbard's batting average. Kasten, who like Celtic general manager Jan Volk has a law degree from Columbia, was named president of the Atlanta Braves five months ago.
4) A bench that does more than provide a place for its stars to rest their buns during timeouts.
Of the above, only No. 4 will be of primary importance in the playoffs. Atlanta may be the deepest team in the league. Its reserves are averaging 36.8 points per game and a league-leading 19.2 rebounds. When Randy Wittman went down with a sprained ankle for 11 games in mid-January, John Battle averaged 13.5 points and 3.9 assists in his stead. When Rivers needs a rest, Webb checks in and pushes the speedometer above legal limits. "I get my easiest baskets when Spud's in the game," says Wilkins. When power forward Kevin Willis sits down, Cliff (Good News) Levingston takes over Willis's relentless attack on the offensive boards.
When Wilkins starts forcing shots like a rookie, Antoine Carr enters and becomes the focal point of the offense. When the Hawks need a three-point shot, Mike McGee, an off-season acquisition from the Lakers, comes in and heaves up a couple, as he did against the Pistons last Friday. After only 71 games with Atlanta, McGee holds the team's career three-point record with 77. And when Tree Rollins went down on Feb. 11 with a broken right big toe, Jon Koncak, another seven-footer, played ably in his place.