Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 3/30/12
Wearing a hat with the symbol of the Augusta National Golf Club, Mike Woodson stepped off the New York Knicks team bus after it arrived inside Philips Arena on Friday and as he made his way to the visiting locker room for the first time since he was let go as coach of the Hawks, began embracing Atlanta team employees. For six straight seasons he guided the Hawks to an improvement in their record, including three playoff appearances, before the organization chose not to give him a new contract following the 2009-10 season, the second straight in which he led the team to the second round. On Friday, he could hold his head high. He has guided the Knicks to a record of 8-1 as interim coach after taking over for Mike DAntoni, who resigned. Preaching a different style Woodson was always a disciple of defense first the Knicks were 26-25 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference before taking on the Hawks. Woodson said he has grown in the 22 months since departing as the Hawks coach, where he had a record of 214-287, which included two initial seasons of tearing down and rebuilding. "Theres not a day that I dont think about ownership here giving me an opportunity to coach the team for six years,'' he said. "That doesnt happen very often. Id just like to think the guys I did coach got better and our team got better. Thats what coaching is all about.'' Woodson said his fondest memories were of the 2008-09 season when the Hawks made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and, in a shock to the rest of the league, won all three home games in their playoff series with eventual league champion Boston, as Philips Arena thundered, before falling in seven games. "Our guys were so excited about being in the playoffs the first time,'' he said. "It really gave this franchise hope and the city of Atlanta, the people who supported us, they were really excited about that run, as well.'' Before joining the Knicks staff to start this season, Woodson remained in the Atlanta area during a year off. He said he only attended one NBA game in his native Indianapolis when the Pacers hosted San Antonio but watched plenty of NBA on television. He attended college and even high school games. "A year off from basketball gives you an opportunity to think about a lot of things,'' he said. "It gives you an opportunity to reflect back on what you did, how you can change things, how you can be better. Thats kind of where I am today.'' Among the most interesting comments on Friday morning came from Woodson on the subject of Hawks forward Josh Smith and from Smith himself on Woodson. The two famously knocked heads during Woodsons tenure as coach of the Hawks, with numerous instances often visible on the bench for all to see. But on Friday, the two made it sound as if those feuds were within the confines of almost a family dynamic. Smith said that when Woodson was named the Knicks interim coach, he called Woodson to congratulate him and Woodson said he thought that Smith, who is averaging career highs in points (18.4 per game) and rebounds (9.8), should have made the All-Star team, a snub that has still left a sour taste in Smiths mouth. "He was my first rookie that I really pushed hard, probably caught more (heck) than any player Ive ever coached, but Id like to think he learned something from my staff and I coaching him," Woodson said. "And hes a player, I think, today from the work he put in seven years ago. Hes a tremendous player now.'' Smith credited Woodson for helping to help create a work ethic in him and for bringing out his best. "He definitely pushed me as a young player,'' Smith said. "He saw something in me that I may have not seen in myself. Now as a veteran in this league, I really appreciate all the things I endured as a young player.'' Alas, not all relationships can withstand the strains that come with hiring and firing decisions. Woodson was terse in response to a question about Hawks coach Larry Drew, who was his top assistant during all six seasons in Atlanta. "We havent talked,'' Woodson said. "I just want to talk about basketball. Lets keep it that way.'' For his part, Drew did not use Woodsons name when speaking about the Knicks, but he did credit the job that Woodson has done, saying the Knicks are playing hard and well. "Well, in a lot of cases teams do respond to coaching changes,'' Drew said. "If you look at the New York team, they certainly responded to what has happened.'' Whereas DAntonis trademark was up-tempo offense almost to the exclusion of defense Woodson brings a contrast in style. Although, with the NBAs truncated schedule and limited practice time because of the lockout, Woodson said it has been difficult to make too many changes. "Thats a big problem with this short season,'' Woodson said, adding that much of the teaching has come from video sessions and walk-throughs. "Our guys are picking up things fairly quickly and its nice to see. We got to take it a day at a time and continue to grow as a basketball team.'' Whether Woodson retains the job beyond this season remains up in the air. Much of that will depend on how he finishes, whether the Knicks make the playoffs how they do if they get there and, possibly, what other high-profile candidates might be interested. But thus far, hes burnished his coaching credentials the only way he knows how. "Weve been defending,'' he said. "Thats been the big key for us winning Defensively, weve been off the charts in terms of holding each other accountable ... "Thats nice to see.''
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