WASHINGTON (AP) — As far as Jeff Teague and the rest of the Atlanta Hawks are concerned, bring on LeBron.
Atlanta managed to make it to its first Eastern Conference final without the sort of transcendent, game-changing player that upcoming opponent Cleveland features with LeBron James. The Hawks are OK with that.
“Like everyone says, I guess, we don’t have a superstar or whatever,” Teague said. “But we come up big in big moments every night.”
The Hawks, seeded No. 1 in the East, set up a matchup against James and the Cavaliers that will start Wednesday night in Atlanta by eliminating the Washington Wizards in six games in the second round.
Atlanta earned itself time to rest and prepare by barely finishing off Washington on Friday night, emerging with a 94-91 series-clinching victory in Game 6 when Paul Pierce’s apparent tying 3-pointer was ruled to have been released after the clock expired.
“When I signed here a couple years ago, this was the hope — that we would be competing for championships. We were going to bring in the right pieces and bring in the right people and bring in character guys. We were going to compete at the highest levels. This was our expectation,” Atlanta’s Kyle Korver said. “I think it happened a little quicker than maybe we thought it might.”
It’s the Hawks’ first trip to a conference final since the NBA realigned into conferences in 1970-71. The Hawks have won two playoff series in a single postseason for the first time since moving to Atlanta for the 1968-69 season.
The Hawks did reach the Western Division finals in 1969 and 1970, their first two years in Atlanta, losing both times to the Lakers. Back then, there were two divisions, eight teams made the playoffs, and there were only three rounds, including the NBA Finals.
“We broke through whatever wall or ‘curse,’ whatever everyone was talking about: ‘Can’t get past the second round,'” Korver said. “We’ll just keep on trying to get better.”
With Mike Budenholzer earning NBA coach of the year honors, the Hawks finished a franchise-best 60-22, put together a 19-game winning streak and collected their first division title in 21 years.
During the regular season, the Hawks went 3-1 against everyone’s preseason favorite, the Cavaliers, losing the first matchup before taking three in a row.
“We know what we want to do against them,” said Paul Millsap, who scored 20 points Friday. “It’s about us getting out there and showing it. We’ve got home-court advantage. Just try to take advantage of that.”
In the most recent game between the teams, Atlanta won 106-97 on March 6, limiting James to 18 points and forcing him into nine turnovers.
“Obviously it all starts with LeBron,” Korver said. “A lot of the comments people were making … is that he just makes everyone better, makes everyone believe in themselves.”
The Cavaliers also have point guard Kyrie Irving, but they’re without injured forward Kevin Love.
The Hawks, meanwhile, are a versatile, deep team.
“That’s what we’re about. We’re about playing our style of basketball, whether it’s preseason, regular season, postseason. We’re going to continue to play our style,” Millsap said. “We know who we are. We’re not going to let everybody else tell us what we’re not.”
They had six players who averaged at least 10 points during the regular season — and those same half-dozen players have been in double figures in the postseason, too.
“If we just keep playing team basketball and don’t depend on one guy every night to lead us, we’ll be OK,” said DeMarre Carroll, who led Atlanta with 25 points in Game 6 against Washington, including a pair of layups off passes from Teague in the final minute. “My uncle always told me this saying: If we worry about what we have to do, they ain’t going to be able to do what they want to do. So we’re really going to try to focus on what we have to do and play Hawks basketball.”
Make sense. After all, what they’re doing is working so far.
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