ATLANTA (AP) -Well, this sounds a little strange, but there's no denying it: The Hawks - yep, the Hawks - are Atlanta's best hope for a playoff team.
Granted, that's largely a reflection of the city's grim sporting landscape. The NFL Falcons have only one win since Michael Vick's passion for dogfighting was uncovered. The Braves already missed baseball's postseason for the second year in a row. And the NHL Thrashers dumped their coach last month after losing their first six games.
Which brings us to the Hawks, who haven't had a winning season or made the playoffs this century. It's about time.
``Anything less would be a disappointment,'' said forward Josh Smith, who was all of 13 years old the last time his hometown team was in a postseason game. ``We've got a deep bench. Anyone can have a good game anytime. We're unselfish. We pass the ball. There's no excuse for not making the playoffs this time.''
Indeed, this is the Hawks' best chance in years to make an impression on Atlanta's win-starved sports fans, who are eagerly looking for another team to latch on to this fall with the Vick-less Falcons struggling along at 1-6.
``We want those Falcons fans to come and show us some love,'' Smith said with a smile.
The Hawks opened a few eyes during the preseason, going 7-1 to equal their best exhibition showing since 1983. Now, it's time to see if any of that translates to games that actually count, beginning with Friday night's opener at home against the powerful Dallas Mavericks.
For a team with a streak of eight straight losing seasons since its last playoff appearance in 1999, the preseason was an important step in establishing chemistry and a winning attitude.
``For the most part, I'm pleased with the progress of this team and how we're starting to come together,'' said fourth-year coach Mike Woodson, who certainly knows his job security is dependent on the Hawks making the playoffs. ``Each and every time you step out on the floor, you want to win. That's how we approached our exhibition season.''
ional team.
This past summer, the Hawks had a draft to really get excited about, filling a couple of key needs with burly forward-center Al Horford and point guard Acie Law. Both are expected to make immediate contributions.
Horford really stood out in the preseason, averaging 11.3 points and a team-best 8.6 rebounds. He brings toughness on the inside and the confidence of a winner, having been a key member of Florida's back-to-back NCAA championship teams.
``They've been starving here to win,'' Horford said. ``I'm coming in trying to win at this level as well.''
The 6-foot-10 Horford is more accustomed to playing power forward, but he's likely to get plenty of time at center with the Hawks. Journeymen Zaza Pachulia and Lorenzen Wright are the only other options in the middle.
``Al added the toughness we needed,'' Smith said. ``He's a monster on the boards. He tries to get every rebound. That's what I like about him. Also, he pushes the ball and makes good decisions in transition. He's got a good post-up game. He just has an all-around game.''
bout Speedy Claxton, who was a huge bust last season and played only two preseason games because of an ailing knee.
M, playing 122 games in the Big 12.
That's in contrast to Smith, who was drafted by the Hawks right out of high school, and Marvin Williams, who spent only one year at North Carolina before turning pro.
``These guys (Horford and Law) are battle tested,'' Woodson said. ``They're a little bit different from Marvin Williams and Josh Smith were we got those guys. They just weren't battle tested. These guys have been in a lot big college games, where they had to make big plays for their ballclub.''
Still, they are rookies.
``Will they have some tough times in the league? Sure, all rookies do,'' Woodson conceded. ``But we're very pleased with the progress they showed in camp and in the games. They've been very poised and done everything we've asked them to do.''
Of course, these are the Hawks.
Remember the last time they talked so boldly about making the playoffs, going so far as to offer a money-back guarantee on season tickets in 2002-03? Well, coach Lon Kruger was fired before New Year's Day and the team had to pay up after going 35-47.
Maybe this year will be different. If nothing else, the Hawks have a chance to stand out in a win-deprived city.
``With the Braves having a down year and the Falcons having a down year and the Thrashers getting off to a poor start, there's definitely the opportunity for us to take advantage of that void and be a team the city of Atlanta can rally around,'' Johnson said.

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