Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Hawks may not be good, but they can be fun


It took a while but, finally, you could see what the Hawks are selling. Lethargic while falling behind by 26 points to the Mavericks, they were electric during a furious rally. 

Taurean Prince spotted up for 3-pointers. Kent Bazemore sailed through the lane and unwound that long wingspan for dunks. Trae Young was slithering to the basket, getting bumped, and scoring anyway. 

The first night in their newly-renovated arena had been a snooze. It turned into a party. The Hawks won, 111-104, and their fans had a lot of fun watching them do it. 

“It was unbelievable,” Young said. “The Atlanta crowd showed out. To be honest, I don’t know if we win this game without that support.” 

ESPN was there to showcase the Hawks in their home opener. It’s probably more accurate to say the NBA’s business partner was here to provide advertising for the newly-renovated arena. ESPN won’t be coming back, and neither will any other national television crews. 

Can’t blame them for thinking there’s not much to see beyond the new digs. Even the Hawks don’t hide it. They’ve been selling the arena, Young and an exciting style of basketball. 

Only one of those elements, the building, shined in the first half of the home opener. Then everything changed. 

Suddenly, the Hawks were spryer than the Mavs while running the floor. They were tougher while collecting rebounds. The Hawks weren’t sharp, exactly, but they were persistent. 

And their customers loved it. Hip-hop star Future performed at halftime before Hawks fans saw the team’s future spark the victory. 

Young got fouled on a 3-point try and made all the free throws to give the Hawks their first lead at 96-95. The Mavs went back ahead by three before Young scored back-to-back baskets with superb, whirling moves. The Hawks never trailed again.

Young’s scoring burst sent the crowd into a frenzy. It didn’t stop until well after he secured the victory with free throws, and Future took the floor again.

“That was reminiscent of the playoff runs in ’14, ’15,” said Bazemore, the only Hawks player left from those days. “The energy was great.” 

It was a sharp contrast to the first half. The arena sparkled but the atmosphere was flat. The Hawks were down big by the time people settled into their seats. 

The Mavericks scored 42 points in the first quarter to continue a trend. In the season opener, the Knicks scored 49 in the second quarter against the Hawks. In their next game the Hawks gave up 40 points to Memphis in the second period. 

Finally, the Hawks had enough. The Mavericks scored 62 points over the final three quarters. They scored just 17 in the fourth. 

“Personal pride,” coach Lloyd Pierce said of the difference. 

The Hawks showed what they can offer in the second half, when they outscored the Mavs 63-46. They are not a good NBA team, but they can be a fun one. That will be their attraction. 

The Hawks are right that customers want a full entertainment experience when they go to games. They can get that at the spiffed-up, taxpayer-subsidized arena. It’s just that, at some point, people also want to see the home team win some games. 

Or, at the very least, they want to see the Hawks play well. That didn’t happen in the first half. It happened in a big way in the second half, and with the style Pierce wants the Hawks to play. 

As promised, the Hawks played at a breakneck pace and launched lots of 3-pointers. They made 10 of 20 in the second half, 15 of 38 for the game. 

“Disappointed,” Pierce said. “I was hoping we shot 50.” 

Fast-paced basketball is pleasing to watch when played well, but an eyesore when not. The Hawks hemorrhaged turnovers during exhibition games and it’s been no better when the games count. They had 15 giveaways against the Mavericks, several of them careless. 

Yet the Hawks won, anyway, with Young as a big part of the finishing kick. His outburst at Cleveland the other night was something to see: 35 points on 23 shots, 11 assists, one turnover. His line against the Mavericks wasn’t great — 17 points on 12 shots, five assists vs. five turnovers — but he scored 12 points in the final quarter. 

I like that, even when Young isn’t playing well, he doesn’t back down. Mavs guard Wes Matthews found out in the second half when he tried Young, who stood chest-to-chest with the bigger man. Later, Young trolled Matthews by offering to slap hands after making a free throw. 

“I play with a chip on my shoulder and a little nastiness,” Young said. “Just competing.” 

Young wasn’t the best Hawks player this night. That was Bazemore, who went for 32  points and seven assists. Prince was better, too, with 24 points on 15 shots. DeAndre’ Bembry collected 16 rebounds in 30 minutes. 

Those are the experienced players who will provide consistency as Young and the other rookies learn. Sometimes it will be tough to watch, like in the first half against the Mavericks. Other times it will be a blast, like the final 24 minutes of the same game. 

“What a fun night that was,” Pierce said.


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About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.