ATLANTA --- The Hawks sure enjoyed that trip to the playoffs. The sellout crowds. The over-the-top emotion. The drama of it all.
They'd like to hang around even longer this year.
The team that won all of 13 games just four seasons ago has grown up. Despite a two-game losing streak, Atlanta went into the weekend only a half-game behind Detroit for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference -- a crucial spot that ensures home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs -- and a begrudging respect from opponents who once viewed a game against the Hawks as a gimme in the "W" column.
That's certainly not the case anymore.
"The Hawks are a good basketball team with a lot of good players and they play together," Detroit's Allen Iverson said after a recent trip to Philips Arena that didn't go so well for the visitors.
Actually, the first signs of maturity emerged last spring, when the Hawks played well enough over the final month to end their millennium-long playoff drought, albeit with a 37-45 record that was good enough in the East to claim the final spot. Then they really blossomed, taking the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in an opening-round series that exposed them to the joys -- and pitfalls -- of postseason basketball.
"A lot of the guys here had never experienced anything like that," said second-year center Al Horford, a leader on two championships teams at Florida before he joined a squad that had little experience winning anything. "They kind of saw what it takes to be in the playoffs, to make runs, to be part of the atmosphere and everything. This year, we came in with the mind-set that we wanted to be focused and really get it started good."
That they did, bolting to a 6-0 start that included three road wins. They've also kept up their strong play at home, winning 15 of their first 18 in Atlanta.
"It's a huge carry-over," coach Mike Woodson said. "I think pushing the Celtics to seven games put our team in a different light in terms of our approach."
Atlanta's biggest improvement has been at the defensive end, a point of pride to a coach such as Woodson, who was an assistant on Detroit's rough-and-tumble championship team before joining the Hawks. Despite giving up a season high in the ugliest loss of the season, a 121-87 setback at Orlando Friday night, their points-against average (96 a game) was still a significant improvement on last year's number (100.0).