Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: No apologies for how Hawks made it this far

Sure, the greatest moment in Atlanta Hawks history was made dramatic -- and almost turned heart-breaking -- because their most clutch player missed a free throw.

Then their defense inexplicably lost containment of the best shooter on the floor.

Even then, it took replay to overturn Paul Pierce's ridiculous 3-pointer from the corner and preserve a 94-91 victory over the Washington Wizards.

Fitting? Perhaps.

But so what.

Heretofore, the greatest moment in Atlanta Hawks history was a loss.

You want to talk about fitting? THAT was fitting.

Fitting because the Hawks came out on the short end of the great Dominique Wilkins-Larry Bird shootout in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. And fitting because that was 27 years ago.

Twenty-seven years. Ronald Reagan was still president. John Smoltz had yet to make his big league debut. LeBron James was 3.

The series win over Washington gives the Hawks eight wins this postseason.

They had seven wins in their three previous postseasons combined. The Hawks had never won two playoff series since they moved to Atlanta from St. Louis.

They've never made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Point of technicality here. They did make the Western Division finals in 1970, where they got swept by the Los Angeles Lakers. Their first-round opponent, the Chicago Bulls, had a losing record (39-43).

So, no no apologies for how the Hawks survived the first two rounds of the playoffs. The fact is only two teams have a chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals -- the Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Hawks have been marginalized by NBA analysts all season despite winning 60 games, a franchise record. Their perceived shortcomings -- lack of playoff experience and absence of a go-to player in the clutch -- looked like they might become their undoing Friday night. Kyle Korver, one of the best shooters in the league, kept tossing up bricks. Paul Millsap played well in the first half but was nothing short of awful down the stretch. He kept forcing shots both inside the paint and outside.

But here's the flipside. The Hawks don't rely on one or two players. That's how they won 60 games, and that's why they can keep winning.

DeMarre Carroll has elevated his game. He leads the team in scoring in the playoff, averaging 17.1 points per game. His shooting percentage of .524 is second-best on the team behind Mike Muscala's .609.

Al Horford is an understated franchise player. He's not flashy. But he knocks down big shots. He rebounds. He blocks shots and tips loose balls to teammates.

He's not afraid of the big moment. That's why it was surprising when he had a critical turnover with the Hawks leading and the Wizards expected to foul. Then he missed the first of two free throws. But otherwise, Horford has come through in the big moments.

Jeff Teague changed the tone of the game late by attacking the basket and scoring or drawing the foul.

The Hawks were out-rebounded (55-47), committed more turnovers (15-11) and made five fewer free throws (19-14). Yet they somehow won.

"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."

Most likely, no one outside of the Hawks or their fan base will give them much of a chance to beat the Cavaliers. The first prediction I've read is Cleveland in five games. Maybe so. But if there's anything we have learned since the Hawks ascended to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 35-2 run in December and January, it's that they don't really care what anyone else thinks.

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