In Game 1, Hawks again showed they’ve become a fourth-quarter team

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young gestures during the second half of Game 1 first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young gestures during the second half of Game 1 first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Credit: AP

Trae Young had Frank Ntilikina, subbed in with nine seconds left specifically to stymie him on the Hawks’ final possession, on skates.

He crossed Ntilikina up one, two, three, four times, dribbling between his legs and breaking free, getting to the basket for an easy floater that gave the Hawks a 107-105 win Sunday and 1-0 advantage in their first-round playoff series vs. the Knicks. Game 2 is Wednesday.

While Young was commanding everyone’s attention, before he drove to the basket, a keen eye could see John Collins falling over and losing a shoe after an encounter with the Knicks’ Taj Gibson (Collins after the game: “I got hacked.”) The play could have fallen apart. Instead, it ended with a bucket and epitomized how the Hawks have grown in the fourth quarter.

“John’s shoe fell off, he fell to the ground, and there was kind of a big mix-up for a sec, we’re all looking at each other like ‘What are we going to do?’” wing Kevin Huerter said. “And Trae had the mindset to just kind of clear everybody out and go to work himself. I think that’s kind of what we’ve been trying to do, make sure we’re organized and make sure we’re getting the ball in the hands of guys (who) we want the ball in their hands, and get ourselves into sets where we know we can be effective.”

Through their 14-20 start under Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks were tied for the worst fourth-quarter point differential in the league at -1.9. That wasn’t their only problem, as injuries piled on, but it was certainly one of the main issues holding them back. Nate McMillan took over March 1. From that point to the end of the regular season, in a dramatic turnaround, the Hawks had the best point differential at +3.0, and that trend continued in Game 1. With teams that appear to be so evenly matched, late-game execution will likely be a critical component in this series.

Credit: Seth Wenig

Credit: Seth Wenig

Getting organized, getting good shots and not rushing has been the biggest difference for the Hawks, Huerter said, in addition to getting the ball in the right hands (another example of that is their comeback win vs. Milwaukee April 25, when they scored 41 points in the fourth quarter thanks to a late burst from backup guard Lou Williams).

In addition to Young’s crafty display Sunday helping you forget all about the Hawks’ fourth-quarter woes earlier in the season, the Hawks putting up 36 points (to the Knicks’ 32), going 5-of-7 from 3-point range (71.4%) after going 7-of-27 (25.9%) the first three quarters probably helped, too. Wing Bogdan Bogdanovic came alive, going 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (4-of-9 overall) and scoring nine of his 18 points in the fourth.

It wasn’t perfect, with Alec Burks going off for 18 points, though he didn’t capitalize when it mattered most, missing a jumper with 35.5 seconds to play after Bogdanovic stole the ball back from RJ Barrett and quickly released a high-difficulty 3 to tie things up, 103-103. But, the Hawks executed well enough to rally from a six-point deficit and nab a win in front of a rowdy Madison Square Garden crowd of about 15,000. Under McMillan, they continue to show growth in buckling down and winning games late.

“That fourth quarter, the scoring, the lead went back and forth and I thought our guys did a good job of just staying with it on both ends of the floor, not really showing a panic or anything like that,” said McMillan, who preaches the three C’s of calm, clear and connected to his players. “I thought they showed poise and control and did a good job of finishing that fourth quarter. … I have seen, or continue to see, growth in this team.”

One thing that has helped the Hawks become such a fourth-quarter team, per McMillan, is in practice showing the team situations they’ll encounter late in the game and playing through those scenarios, so they’re clear about what they need to execute.

It has also been key for the team to stay even-keeled in tough situations, Collins said after the win, at that point having recovered his shoe.

“It’s something we’ve been working on the whole year, being calm, being connected,” Collins said. “It’s vital for us winning games and it’s some of the reason, or part of the reason why we won (Sunday), is because we were connected and calm with the basketball down the stretch. We made good plays and came up victorious.”

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