ATLANTA --- The arena was packed with more than 20,000 screaming fans. The home guys were going basket-for-basket with the NBA's best team.
In Atlanta, of all places.
Last spring, the Hawks provided a tantalizing glimpse of where they might be headed during their first playoff appearance in nine years. They took eventual champion Boston to a full seven games, winning three thrilling games at Philips Arena, all of them played before raucous sellout crowds.
"Atlanta was an unbelievable place to play in the playoffs," forward Marvin Williams said. "Hopefully we can get more regular-season games like that."
Indeed, that is the challenge for the Hawks this season, to somehow bottle those three playoff performances and spread it out over a full season. They certainly showed the potential to compete with the league's top teams; then again, they made the playoffs with only 37 wins and were blown out in all four games at Boston, never coming within 19 points of the team that went on to capture the championship.
"A lot of teams probably felt it was a fluke, us making the playoffs," forward Josh Smith said. "I feel like we have a lot to prove this season."
While wanting his team to savor the good feelings from its showing against the Celtics, coach Mike Woodson is eager to move to the next level. A winning record during the regular season. Home-court advantage in the playoffs.
"Last season is last season. It's something to build on, but it's behind us now," Woodson said.
The Hawks return with essentially the same squad. Shockingly, they lost valuable sixth-man Josh Childress to a team in Greece, but they bolstered the bench by signing swingman Maurice Evans and combo guard Flip Murray.
The Hawks answered some concerns that a dysfunctional ownership group wasn't willing to spend the big bucks necessary to build a championship team by matching Smith's $58 million offer sheet from the Memphis Grizzlies, at least keeping the core of the team together.
Joe Johnson, Williams and Smith are part of a lineup that includes two other players who made big impacts in their Atlanta debuts -- center Al Horford, runner-up for the NBA Rookie of the Year, and point guard Mike Bibby, added at the trade deadline.
"We were a better team when Bibby came over, in terms of running and pushing the basketball and scoring points," said Woodson, who might have saved his job with Atlanta's performance in the playoffs.
Woodson got a new deal after general manager Billy Knight quit and was replaced by longtime NBA executive Rick Sund.
"I've always felt secure about my job," Woodson insisted.