Hawks fans went to sleep with joy — and hope — late Wednesday, excited for another chance at winning Friday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Many gathered in bars to cheer on Atlanta’s favorite male basketball stars facing the Bucks Wednesday night. It was the first time the Hawks have advanced to the conference finals since 2015.

The crowd at Hudson Grille in downtown Atlanta erupted when star Trae Young tossed John Collins an alley-oop midway through the third quarter, giving the Hawks the lead. They exploded again minutes later when Young lobbed Collins another pass off the backboard that Collins slammed over a defender.

But tension set in as the game tightened later. Eric Merritt muttered under his breath as the Bucks made a run in the fourth quarter. He got out of his seat and paced at his table with less than five minutes left when Milwaukee pulled ahead by four points.

But Merritt let out a sigh of relief and a loud clap when Clint Capela’s put-back gave the Hawks the lead with 29.8 ticks left.

June 23, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks fans Ezzell Williams (right) and Tameaka Hamilton (left) react as they watch Atlanta Hawks beating Milwaukee Bucks at Hudson Grille in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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June 23, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks fans Ezzell Williams (right) and Tameaka Hamilton (left) react as they watch Atlanta Hawks beating Milwaukee Bucks at Hudson Grille in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Merritt, a 49-year-old Atlanta resident, will be out of town Friday. He hopes to be in the State Farm Arena when the Hawks return to town for Game 3.

“Come Sunday for Game 3, the whole city’s going to be turned up,” he said after Wednesday night’s win was sealed.

Kenny McNair, a 37-year-old Atlanta resident, sat and watched the game with Merritt. He also relished in the victory afterward.

“I feel like they don’t have what a lot of other teams like Milwaukee have, where they’re expected to win,” McNair said of the Hawks. “No one expects them to win. So they just come out and play hard, play with heart and play for each other. And they show up for their coach as well.

“Put some respect on them boys. If people didn’t know about the Hawks, they know now.”

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William Churchill, a 28-year-old singer, said he plans to be right back at the Hudson Grille on Friday night for Game 2 of the series.

“Anytime our teams start winning, the culture starts becoming electric,” Churchill said. “Businesses start booming, the morale starts getting up, the clubs are crazy. So when we win, we all win.”

He said one of the things that has galvanized the fan base is the Hawks’ success as underdogs.

“We don’t have a superstar. We don’t have any All-NBA players. All we’ve got is a regular team with a lot of people believing in what we have going. And we’re thinking this is our year. While everybody was focused on the Falcons, the Hawks are slowly building.”

Both teams come from basketball cities hungry for success.

Milwaukee last reached the finals in 1974, with their sole win in 1971. The Hawks won their only championship in 1958, when they were in St. Louis.

Ryan Crenshaw, a 32-year-old Bucks fan, was in enemy territory — the Taco Mac in Midtown — and felt the Hawks defense was a bit soft, but he still had good things to say about his team’s rivals.

“[The Hawks] did good to make it this far. Their performance is amazing to get them to where they’ve gotten. It’s gonna be a challenge for the Bucks as well,” he said.

Here's what the Midtown location of Taco Mac looked like during the first half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. (Anjali Huynh/AJC)
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Here's what the Midtown location of Taco Mac looked like during the first half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. (Anjali Huynh/AJC)

The Hawks have gone 35-15 since March 1, when the team fired Lloyd Pierce and installed Nate McMillan as interim head coach.

“It’s nice to see the Hawks be a relevant NBA team, as someone who’s an Atlanta native,” said Jeff Schwartz, a 30-year-old WarnerMedia product manager, while watching the game at Taco Mac. " ... The Hawks have always kind of been a joke the past couple of years. It wasn’t much to watch before and now they’re kind of trying to show up and be a legit team.”

There was another added layer of sweetness to the evening.

“This is our first time that we’ve gone to a sports bar in like two years because of the pandemic and now we’re vaccinated and feel like oh this is great,” Schwartz said. “I was actually worried coming out, like where could we go that’s going to have sports … It’s gonna be fun. It’s nice to be out and watch multiple games.”

Kevin Thames agrees.

The 48-year-old watched the game at the Twin Peaks in Buckhead — where there were three-hour waits for a table. He said he enjoyed seeing the Hawks play, but is even more thrilled to be back at a sports bar with his friends.

“It’s good to be vaccinated,” he said. “We really haven’t seen each other in almost two years. To be able to hang and have a drink and chill out, there’s nothing like it.”

Thames and his friends have been watching Atlanta sports games for nearly a decade. “You have to be dedicated to be an Atlanta sports fan,” he said with a laugh.

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Andy Kim, a 25-year-old banker, watched Game 6 against the 76ers at State Farm Arena with 23-year-old consultant Grace Ko. They wore matching Hawks jerseys.

“I was heartbroken with the Falcons, so I’m hoping that doesn’t happen here,” Kim said at Taco Mac.

”Usually I’m not a basketball fan, so me being here to watch it is a big thing for me,” Ko added.

James Harris III, a 32-year-old Atlanta native, said he didn’t expect the Hawks to make it this far, but he now believes they have a good shot at taking the next step to the NBA Finals.

“It’s monumental, especially considering the way we started,” Harris said of the team’s 14-20 record to start the season.

By the fourth quarter, about 136 people had been seated at Taco Mac and the wait was roughly two hours, said Xavier Gibson, a junior at Georgia State University who works at the sports bar.

Surrounded by his fellow fans there, Harris said: “I’m lit, the city’s lit, the team is lit. It’s lit. I think a lot of people are sleeping on us. … We have this underdog mentality. It’s Atlanta versus all y’all.”

Credit: WSBTV Videos

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As Hawks keep winning, business booming for local restaurants

Credit: WSBTV Videos