Here are five things we learned from the Hawks' 122-108 victory over the hapless Sacramento Kings on Friday, a high-scoring game that had a 1980s feel, even though Atlanta was decked out in retro uniforms from 1997:
Josh Smith played like a man no longer carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders
The box score indicates that Smith rolled the Kings for 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and one block. But it doesn't reveal how much fun Smith had with the pacing of this up-and-down affair; nor does it cover his enjoyment level when guarding Sacramento forwardcenter DeMarcus Cousins in the paint ... and beyond the arc.
One could draw a few parallels between Smith and Cousins (26 points, 13 boards). They're enigmatic talents in the eyes of the Atlanta and Sacramento media, respectively. They earn their keep wreaking havoc in the paint and on the break. For good measure, they sometimes succumb to the devilish temptation of heaving momentum-killing shots from long range.
On Thursday, the Hawks resisted the urge to deal their star before the NBA trade deadline, opting to take their chances with Smith during the playoffs and subsequently hope that he'll re-sign with the club in mid-July.
In the meantime, though, Smith looked relaxed and content on the court Friday, knowing he won't have a different mailing address or be relegated to playing out the string with a non-contender through April.
The Hawks are virtual locks to reach the postseason
The above statement is hardly a revelation. But it's still worth pointing out that 22-30 Philadelphia (ninth in the East) would likely have to go 25-5 down the stretch to bump Atlanta (30-23, sixth in the East) from playoff contention.
Obviously, the Sixers have better odds of catching the Celtics (seventh in the East) or Bucks (eighth) before April 17, but the above point bears repeating:
At full strength, it would take a colossal downturn for the Hawks to fall short of 47 victories, the East's for-certain threshold (my speculation) of making the playoffs.
Atlanta only has two more road trips of three or more games on the docket. Plus, the Hawks have winnable matchups against the 76ers (twice), Bucks and Raptors in the final 12 days.
It's fun to make bold proclamations on the eve of a major road trip
Beginning Saturday, Atlanta will embark on a six-city, nine-day tour of America (Milwaukee, Detroit, Utah, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver) a voyage that includes three opponents with winning records (Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets) and covers all four time zones.
This is an ideal time for the Hawks to bolt town, riding high after trouncing a bottom-feeder club from the West. For Friday's victory, four players (Smith, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, DeShawn Stevenson) tallied at least 17 points. Of equal importance, eight Hawks posted positive plusminus ratios against the lame-duck Kings (or future Sonics), led by Horford (plus-21) and his 24 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
"I thought we did a phenomenal job with the basketball," said Hawks head coach Larry Drew. "We had 33 assists. Guys found the open guys and moved the basketball to guys at the right time. We really did a good job sharing the (ball)."
For the night, Atlanta shot 53 percent from the field (49 of 92) and connected on 12 of 27 triples, highlighted by Stevenson's five three-pointers. In fact, it would have been 13 threes for the Hawks ... if the referees hadn't waved off Smith's whirling 30-footer at the second-quarter buzzer. It took the officials roughly seven minutes to disallow the field goal, via instant replay.
In the bigger picture, the Hawks have a golden chance to challenge the Nets and Bulls for the No. 4 and 5 slots in the East ... or at least maintain their status at No. 6. The rationale behind that: Atlanta would avoid defending champion Miami (38-14) in the East bracket, until the conference finals.
You know, the path of least resistance.
Priest Lauderdale was conspicuously absent from the Hawks' "All-90S Team" celebration
OK, so maybe Lauderdale (255 career points in two NBA seasons) didn't warrant inclusion in the halftime ceremony, commemorating a productive era of Hawks basketball.
But who could forget that June night in 1997 ... when Lauderdale emerged from the stands as a paying customer after hearing NBA commissioner David Stern call his name in Round 1 (28th overall pick). As if the seating at Brendan Byrne Arena (the New Jersey Nets' old home) could accommodate any 7-foot-4, 325-pound behemoths back then.
Lauderdale memories aside, the Hawks' all-time 90s squad of Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Dikembe Mutombo stands as a formidable group. And it's easy to see how the franchise posted three 50-win seasons from 1994-98 (never reaching the East finals, though).
Blaylock, a two-time steals champion, was a highly effective producer on four fronts points, assists, steals and rebounds (in terms of guards). Steve Smith buried 402 three-pointers in his first four seasons with the Hawks (1994-98).
Willis, who would incredibly play 23 NBA seasons before retiring at age 44, notched eight years of double-digit pointseight-plus rebounds with Atlanta. Mutombo ranks third all time with 1,094 blocks.
And in 12 seasons with the Hawks, Wilkins (1982-94) stands as the franchise kingpin in points (23,292), points per game (tied with Bob Pettit), field goals, field goal attempts, minutes played, games (882) and most spectacularly ... dunks.
I hope somebody DVR'd Friday's game for Jeff Teague
Around the 1:40 mark of the second quarter, Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (30 points, nine assists) corralled a long pass from Cousins and strode in for an open-court layup. Out of nowhere, Teague speed-glided to the basket, blocking Thomas' shot. He then took the outlet pass, dribbled into the paint and slashed for an in-traffic layup, exciting the Philips Arena crowd of 15,031 and boosting the Hawks to a one-point lead.
It may have been the fourth-year guard's most scintillating 10 seconds as a pro. At the very least, Teague (20 points, 12 assists) earned a nomination for the season-ending award of Greatest Sequence From A One-Man Army.