ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks can't escape their past.
Since moving from St. Louis in 1968, the Hawks have yet to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, an anvil of underachievement that hangs over the franchise every time the postseason rolls around.
"That's a legitimate knock against us," general manager Pete Babcock said. "I can't argue with it. We have not gotten past the second round. That's a fact."
Atlanta finished second in the Central Division, two games behind Indiana, but clinched the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs with a victory over Washington in the final regular-season game.
The best-of-5 series against the Detroit Pistons opens Saturday night at the Georgia Dome. Game 2 will be Monday before the series shifts to the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Seven times since 1986, Atlanta has been knocked out of the playoffs in the second round. The Hawks didn't even make it that far a year ago, dropping a four-game series to Charlotte in the first round.
Now, they've got to beat Detroit before addressing their second-round futility.
"We've got to do better than in the past," Babcock said. "Our mission statement is simple: We want to win a championship, nothing less."
The Pistons enter the playoffs on a roll, having won six straight before an overtime loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday. Detroit, which features Grant Hill and former Hawk Christian Laettner, took the season series 2-1, winning on the lone visit to Atlanta.
"We wanted to go into the playoffs with momentum," Pistons coach Alvin Gentry said after the 105-100 loss to the 76ers. "I don't think we lost any with this game."
With the retirement of Michael Jordan and collapse of the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls, everyone in the East feels this might be the year to make a run at the title. Only six games separated top-seeded Miami from No. 8 New York after the abbreviated 50-game schedule.
"We have a chance to do something very big in Atlanta," said Hawks forward Grant Long, who takes a personal element into the series after spending the last two seasons languishing on the Detroit bench. "We don't get a lot of press, a lot of accolades. But I think we're the team to beat."
Long, who averaged 19.3 points over the final three regular-season games, could play a large role against his former team. Alan Henderson is hampered by an abrasion on his left eye, making him doubtful for Game 1.
"He's still seeing with double-vision," coach Lenny Wilkens said. "He's seeing better, but it's a slow process. I would have to say he won't be ready for the first game unless he makes a miraculous recovery."
Henderson suffered through a series of injuries and LaPhonso Ellis played only 20 games before a sports hernia ended his season, giving the Hawks chance to demonstrate a much deeper bench than the past couple of seasons.
Atlanta didn't slip at all when Long filled in for Henderson at strong forward and second-year player Chris Crawford took over Ellis' small forward position. Anthony Johnson and Tyrone Corbin also get extensive playing time off the bench.
"If somebody's not going well, somebody off the bench can give you the minutes," Corbin said. "That's a big key in the playoffs. It also helps to be able to give the other team some different looks."
The Hawks hope to have a different look by the end of this postseason.
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