In playoffs, Hawks eager to prove they deserve spotlight

May 5, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan instructs Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
May 5, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan instructs Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

If you remember far enough back, before limping to a disappointing 14-20 start, the Hawks actually had a 4-1 record through their first five games this season.

After an impressive 114-96 win in Brooklyn, fending off Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, fourth year power-forward John Collins had a message for those taking the Hawks lightly: “I feel like we proved that we are real contenders in the East. ... We are not a joke.”

Of course, the injury-plagued Hawks lost six of their next seven and continued to stray further from their publicly stated goal of making the playoffs, one year after finishing 20-47, until everything shifted March 1. Interim coach Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks went from the worst fourth-quarter team in the league to the best and they’ve gone 26-11 since (40-31 overall), only recently getting healthier.

They’ve clinched a Top 6 playoff spot, successfully avoiding the play-in tournament, catapulting from No. 11 in the East to No. 4 (as of Friday). The turnaround has been dramatic.

In light of that, many of the Hawks don’t feel that the team has gotten the national attention it deserves, or the credit for how much the group has improved. With the franchise’s first playoffs since the 2016 season awaiting, they’re motivated to back up Collins’ original point, having undergone this transformation — they’re better than people think they are.

“Trae (Young) and I, it definitely drives and motivates us personally,” Collins said. “We definitely want to prove everybody wrong, prove our doubters, our haters wrong, prove to people who didn’t expect for us to be here, prove them wrong as well. But we also want to prove ourselves right. We’ve put in a lot of hard work, we’ve been through the trenches, we’ve lost games, we’ve figured out how to win. … We feel like we deserve more national attention and now we have the opportunity to go prove it. And we’re ready.”

The Hawks have one game left in the regular season (Sunday vs. the Rockets), and will have to wait and see how the Heat and Knicks fare in their final two games before determining who will occupy seeds No. 4-6.

For many of the young Hawks players, including Collins, the longest-tenured guy on the roster, this will mark their first trip to the playoffs. That’s the case for Year 3 players in Young and Kevin Huerter and Year 2 in De’Andre Hunter. Every player with postseason experience, including Lou Williams, Clint Capela, Solomon Hill and Danilo Gallinari, is a newer arrival.

With the Hawks rebuilding for a few years, and going 73-158 the past three seasons, they haven’t exactly been on the map. The recognition the Hawks are craving, both individually and as a team, can be earned with consistent winning, Young knows.

“I feel like I haven’t gotten the recognition and some guys on our team haven’t got the recognition that we deserve, but it comes with winning,” Young said. “I know that and I’ve known that since the beginning. I think that’s the most frustrating part, is when you don’t get the recognition you feel you deserve, but we’re here now.”

That’s the thing: they’re here now. And they’ve got the opportunity, whoever it comes against (both the Heat and Knicks would be a tough matchup in the first round), to prove they belong.

As far as believing they deserve more credit than they receive, the Hawks aren’t alone, wing Bogdan Bogdanovic thinks (this will be his first trip to the NBA playoffs, as well). Every team in the league would probably say the same.

Such a strong second half showing does deserve more credit, he said, but in the end it’ll all shake out. Having set themselves up to showcase what they can do on the biggest stage, now it’s up to the Hawks to show why they deserve that recognition.

“What I learned in this league, you have to prove it, that you’re ‘that team,’ every night, every game, every time,” Bogdanovic said. “So that’s the toughest challenge for every single team, and that’s why a lot of teams don’t get enough credit. I honestly believe we don’t have enough credit, the way we played after All-Star, but it’s OK. We still have to prove it. If we go out there and we play terrible basketball in playoffs, no one will care about us. I know that. So we have to look at ourselves and continue to play the way we want. If we want the bigger credit, we have to play better than now, we have to play better, we have to find ways. It has to be like that.”

TODAY’S GAME

Rockets at Hawks, 7 p.m., FSSE, 92.9