ATLANTA - For most of the season, the people of Atlanta did their best to ignore the Hawks.
The upper deck was a good place to get some sleep during weeknight games because there was hardly anyone to bother you. Reporters joked that there was no need to wait for the official attendance to be announced; they could just count the fans.
Even as the wins piled up, the city seemed to have a collective ignorance about its basketball team.
Well, things are starting to change. On Tuesday night, with the Hawks locked in a tight game against Minnesota, more than 14,000 people chanted, "Defense! Defense! Defense!"
"The crowd was behind us," Christian Laettner said, after the Hawks edged the Timberwolves 95-93. "They were loud, they were pulling for us and that's great. We need more of that."
Some people might wonder: Hey, Atlanta, what took you so long? The Hawks have emerged as one of the NBA's strongest teams, winning 14 straight games at home and seven in a row overall to push their record to 23-11.
"You put this team anywhere else in the NBA," reserve guard Jon Barry said, "they'd be packing the joint every night."
As it is, the Hawks are still No. 27 among 29 NBA teams in average attendance at 12,069, but they have two sellouts and two other 14,000-plus crowds in their last five games at The Omni. Most telling was the turnout of 14,032 for a weeknight game against Minnesota, not one of the league's marquee teams.
"We're starting to get nasty in The Omni," Steve Smith said. "The crowd was loud and they were pulling for us. That hasn't always been the case here."
Early in the season, the players wondered why more fans didn't come out. The Hawks lost their home opener Nov. 2, but they've been unbeatable at the Omni ever since.
"It's a tough thing to figure out," Barry said of the fans, "because we play so well (here). It's disappointing. It's an old building (built in 1972), there's not a whole lot to do downtown. I assume that's the reason."
If a team keeps winning, though, people eventually will start to notice. The Hawks defeated Phoenix, Orlando and San Antonio in overtime games last week and beat Minnesota when Mookie Blaylock broke a 93-93 tie with two free throws with a half-second remaining.
Atlanta doesn't have anyone among the top 20 scorers in the league, but all five starters are averaging in double figures. Laettner, acquired last season in a trade with Minnesota, leads the team in scoring (19.5) and is starting to show glimpses of the star quality he had at Duke. Dikembe Mutombo, a $56 million free-agent signee, has given the Hawks their first legitimate center in years.
"It feels great, especially for me," said Mutombo, who ranks fifth in the league with 12.2 rebounds per game and is averaging nearly 3.5 blocks each night. "I'm very happy with the decision I made over the summer to come to the Hawks. I know now that it was not a mistake. I go to bed every night smiling."
With five of their next six games at the Omni, starting Thursday night against the Orlando Magic, the Hawks may be able to keep smiling as they make a push for the best record in the Eastern Conference this side of Chicago.
Atlanta is only 2« games behind Detroit, the second-winningest team in the East, and trails Atlantic Division co-leaders Miami and New York by only two games.
The players set a goal of winning 30 games by the All-Star break. With 12 games still remaining before the Feb. 9 contest at Cleveland, they may have to adjust their timetable.
"We're winning the close games," Smith said. "That's the sign of a contender."