Stretching the Field: Hawks will grow from experience

( - Shaquille O'Neal casually believed the Philadelphia 76ers had a better team than the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals.

Tongue in cheek, O'Neal said the Sixers were better because they won most of the NBA awards with Coach of the Year Larry Brown, MVP Allen Iverson, Sixth Man Aaron McKie and Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo.

Turns out O'Neal and the Lakers were more deserving of NBA hardware and captured the league's most important trophy in five games.

Thumb a few pages up to the 2014-15 regular season for the Atlanta Hawks and you will see story lines similar to those of the 76ers. A franchise-record 60 wins, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, a team-record four All-Stars and NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer.

Seems like a recipe for success, right?

Budenholzer led Atlanta to a 60-22 record in his second season, three games better than the previous team high of 57-25 set in 1986-87 and matched in 1993-94. The Hawks earned both the No. 1 playoff seed in the East and a division title for the first time since 1993-94.

Atlanta made the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year, the longest active streak in the East, and disposed of the Brooklyn Nets in six games in the quarterfinals. The Hawks struggled over their next six games in the second round to dispatch the Washington Wizards.

Then LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers crashed the party.

Actually, it wasn't much of a surprise with the planet's greatest basketball player and the No. 2-seeded Cavs reaching the conference finals. In fact, they did it sans Kevin Love and with a band of what some people would deem as misfits. Even Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving missed half the Atlanta series with injuries.

The Hawks reached the conference finals by doing what they do best: balance on offense and team defense. The two main ingredients were put into a food processor against the Cavs, who swept both the Hawks and their dreams of making it to the NBA Finals. Cleveland took the first game, 97-89, grabbed a 2-0 lead with a 94-82 victory, made it a 3-0 deficit thanks to a 114-111 win in overtime and broke out the brooms in Tuesday's lopsided 118-88 decision.

Hawks guard Jeff Teague averaged 21.5 points per game in a series that was completely taken over by a confident James.

James, who can play any one of the five positions on the floor, willed his team to the NBA Finals in his first season back with Cleveland. He was simply too much for Atlanta and single-handedly won a few games in this series.

The Hawks had the advantage in the middle with Paul Millsap, Al Horford and the gritty DeMarre Carroll, but they lacked definition and were sloppy. It didn't aid the cause with Carroll nursing a foot issue and sharpshooter Kyle Korver going down with an ankle injury. It seems when Korver was lost, all was lost for Atlanta's dream season.

The Hawks weren't ready for the big stage (or James) and it lies on the coach.

Budenholzer, whose squad won 35 of 38 games at one point in the regular season and went 17-0 in January as part of a franchise-record 19-game winning streak, will take this defeat as a learning experience.

"I'm proud of our group. In the playoffs you learn and grow a lot, including in a night like tonight. It's not something anybody wants, but I think we've always talked about learning and growing each day, each experience. I think throughout the playoffs we've done that," Budenholzer said. "We'll learn from tonight and we'll learn from this series, and we'll be better going forward."

Millsap said postgame the Hawks couldn't find their rhythm against the Cavaliers. He failed to mention they had no answer for King James.

On top of focusing what might have been, Millsap will be a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. Teams like the New York Knicks or even the Cavaliers could use someone of Millsap's ilk. Millsap said afterward he's going to weigh his options and let everything settle down before making a decision.

This current roster hasn't played a whole lot together and it wouldn't be wise to lose a vital piece of the puzzle such as Millsap. Teague thrived this season playing alongside the power forward.

"I enjoyed every moment playing with him," Teague told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. "He made me a better player. I think he enjoyed being around all the guys, him and DeMarre. I'm looking forward for them to be back and take another crack at it."

There's no doubt the Hawks will be back in the playoffs for a ninth year in a row. They're just too good. Are they good enough to win an NBA title? That remains to be seen because the Hawks had the opportunity to do that now and look what happened.

The NBA's regular season and playoffs are a grind and only the strong survive.

It's a tough pill to swallow when going deep into the postseason and coming up empty, and the Hawks should have nothing to feel sorry about. They became one of the East's elite by executing team basketball, drawing headlines away from the usual suspects and breathing life back into the 30303 zip code.

Don't think for one moment this loss will deter the Hawks from attempting to reach new heights over the next few seasons.

"I'm proud of everybody in that locker room," Teague said postgame. "We did a lot of things in Atlanta basketball history this year. We had a great season, won a lot of games, but we ended on a disappointing note and I think everyone in the locker room is disappointed in themselves. It's early for our team and it's only our second year together. And we're looking forward to getting back in the gym and getting ready for next year."