ATLANTA (AP) — From Cliff Levingston taking the final shot instead of Dominique Wilkins to the largest four-game blowout in NBA history, the Atlanta Hawks have plenty of playoff lowlights.
Now, finally, there’s something to cheer about.
For the first time, the Hawks are headed to the Eastern Conference finals, just one step away from playing for the first championship since the franchise moved from St. Louis to the Deep South in 1968.
“They deserve it,” said Wilkins, a Hall of Famer and probably the greatest player in team history. “They really just came together as one.”
Wilkins was part of another memorable era in Atlanta history, the leader of a high-flying team that, until now, came the closest to advancing past the second round.
The Hawks were up 3-2 on Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in 1988 but squandered a chance to wrap up the conference semifinals in Atlanta. Clinging to a two-point lead in Game 6, the Celtics double-teamed Wilkins on the final possession, forcing Levingston to put up an awkward left-handed shot with one second remaining.
He missed, of course, and the Celtics wrapped up the series in the deciding game, an epic duel between Wilkins and Bird in which Boston held on for a 118-116 victory.
Atlanta has made it to the second round only eight times since then, three of those ending in sweeps. Most notably, the Hawks took an unprecedented thumping at the hands of the Orlando Magic in 2010, losing four straight games by an average of 25.25 points. Booed off the court in the final two contests at home, the team fired coach Mike Woodson shortly afterward.
There will be nothing but adulation when the Hawks open the conference finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, a sign of how much the city has adopted this team after years of apathy.
“It’s been incredible,” Wilkins, now a team executive and television commentator, said Saturday in a telephone interview. “We’re finally embracing our heritage, embracing a culture of basketball, and embracing the history of this team.”
That history includes a few highlights and plenty of bumps.
When the Hawks moved to Atlanta 47 years ago, they were one of the NBA’s top teams. Playing at tiny Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the Georgia Tech campus, they continued their strong play by reaching the division final the first two years in their new home, only to get blown out both times by the Los Angeles Lakers. The city barely seemed to notice its newest big-league team, which averaged 4,474 fans during its debut season and just 5,210 the next even though the Hawks won the Western Division title.
Things changed after Wilkins, a star at the University of Georgia, was acquired in 1982. By the late ’80s, Wilkins was joined by Levingston, Kevin Willis, Antoine Carr, Doc Rivers and Spud Webb on one of the league’s up-and-coming teams. The Hawks sold out the Omni on a regular basis and won at least 50 games four years in a row (the only time that’s happened in franchise history), but they never figured out a way to get by those great Boston teams and other Eastern powerhouses.
“Everybody was so good, particularly in the East,” Wilkins remembered. “Boston had five Hall of Famers. There was also Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, just so many good teams.”
Rivers, who now coaches the Los Angeles Clippers, praised his former team — especially after a tumultuous offseason in which owner Bruce Levenson was forced to sell the Hawks and general manager Danny Ferry went on indefinite leave for racially charged comments.
“It’s really good, especially with what they went through,” Rivers said Saturday.
These Hawks are a definite underdog in the conference finals, despite a 60-22 mark during the regular season, winning three out of four against the Cavaliers and having home-court advantage.
They don’t mind a bit.
“We have a whole team that’s been underdogs for the majority of their lives,” guard Kyle Korver said.
Wilkins likes Atlanta’s chances.
“They played ’em well during the regular season,” he said. “A lot of times, that doesn’t mean anything because the playoffs are a different type of basketball. But it gives them confidence going into the series. Getting to the Eastern Conference finals, we believe we can win. We know we can win.”
Wilkins doesn’t want to look too far ahead, but he can’t help envisioning what it would be like if the Hawks advance to the NBA Finals.
“Oh man, this town would be out of control,” he said, his voice rising. “And we’d be right in the middle of it.”
AP Sports Writers Kristie Rieken in Houston and Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.
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