I reported two weeks ago that Atlanta’s NBA Hawks were still playing in June, having made it to the second round of the playoffs. Now, for only the second time in the franchise’s 53-year history, the Hawks have made it to the Eastern Conference finals, 1 of only 4 teams still standing.
I promise that this is not going to turn into a permanent sports blog, but what the Hawks have accomplished thus far is worth a longer look. On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20, 6 games under .500. The underachieving team fired head coach Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with then-assistant coach Nate McMillan. The team caught fire. Since then they’ve won 35 out of 50, tied for the best record in the league over that stretch.
In the first round the #5 seed Hawks beat the #4 seeded Knicks in 6 games, twice on the road in Madison Square Garden before a decidedly hostile Gotham crowd. In Round 2, the Hawks beat the top-seed Philadelphia 76ers three times in Philly to win the series in 7 games. Long-suffering Hawks fans remember the 1988 NBA playoffs, when Atlanta led Larry Bird and the top-seeded Boston Celtics 3 games to 2 in the second round, only to lose Games 6 and 7 to fall just short. Not this year, and not this team.
Next up: the #3 seed Milwaukee Bucks and their All-World center, the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo. True to form, the Hawks won Game 1 on the Bucks home floor—only the 4th team in NBA history to win three Game 1s on the road in the playoffs, matching the ’99 Knicks, the ’89 Bulls, and the ’81 Rockets. Also true to form, Ice Trae scored 48 points, tying Lebron King James for most points in the conference finals by a player 22 or younger. And he’s not called Ice Trae for nothing: He even did a little shimmy before making a 3-pointer.
Pundits are picking the Hawks in 6 games. No predictions here, just enjoying this ride for as long as it lasts. And when we’re not watching the Hawks, let’s flip over to….
The frozen pond? Yes, the National Hockey League.
To the uninitiated, it’s not unusual for the NBA and the NHL to be playing in June. Though both basketball and hockey are considered winter sports, both leagues usually crown their champions in June. The pandemic delayed the start of both seasons last fall, so the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup will be decided this year in July. And if you’re paying attention to the playoffs in both sports, it’s a feast.
The conference championships are already underway in hockey, and traditionalists are celebrating the return of both the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders to prominence. When I was growing up as an Atlanta Flames fan in the 1970s, Montreal won 6 Stanley Cup championships in that decade, while the Islanders won 4 in a row between 1980 and 1983. That’s dominance and consistency on a rare scale. To see them both back in the championship semi-finals is a treat. Watching them play each other in the Stanley Cup Finals would be unbelievable. Talk about flashbacks: cue “My Sharona.”
In those halcyon days in the late 1970s when the Braves and Falcons were dismal, my great friend Randy “The Big Man” Guillebeau and I were Atlanta Flames fanatics. We tuned in to hear Jiggs McDonald and fellow announcer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion call the games on the Superstation. We bought street hockey sticks and played in the driveway with tennis balls, with The Big Man playing the part of Flames goalie great Dan Bouchard. We even hopped the Marta train down to the Omni to watch games in person.
The Flames came to Atlanta in 1972 and made the playoffs 6 times in 8 years, but apparently The Big Man and I didn’t buy enough tickets to keep the financially struggling franchise in town. I’ve been a Calgary Flames fan ever since. The team finally won a Stanley Cup in 1989 though not, alas, for Atlanta.
Being a NHL fan in the Deep South has always been a lonely avocation, but less so now with many teams in the region. Charlotte, Nashville, Tampa, and Miami all currently have NHL teams.
But not, alas, Atlanta. As we pointed out in the episode on the Atlanta Thrashers for Today in Georgia History, if Atlanta loses one more hockey franchise we’ll score a hat trick.
It’s doubtful that the NHL ever returns to Georgia, but hope springs eternal.
Speaking of: I’ll take the Hawks in 7. If I’m right, see you back here for more in two weeks.