‘It’s sort of surreal:’ Playoff-bound Hawks have come a long way

Hawks guard Trae Young reacts during first period action against the Washington Wizards  Wednesday, May 12, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Atlanta clinched a top-six playoff spot with a 120-116 win over the Wizards. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks guard Trae Young reacts during first period action against the Washington Wizards Wednesday, May 12, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Atlanta clinched a top-six playoff spot with a 120-116 win over the Wizards. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

John Collins knew to expect a pass from Trae Young.

The longest-tenured Hawk couldn’t hear a thing as he caught the ball and, with 24.8 seconds to play, got up the biggest shot of his career.

It fell, giving the Hawks a one-point lead and helping them to an eventual win over the Wizards on Wednesday, after which Collins could breathe a sigh of both relief and joy. For the first time since the 2016 season, one year before he joined the team, the Hawks are headed back to the NBA playoffs, having secured a top-6 seed.

“It’s sort of surreal,” Collins said of his Hawks career leading to that moment. “When I hit that shot, I was so locked in, I wasn’t even really celebrating, I was so locked in on the moment, on us securing this win tonight and securing my first playoff berth. Just thinking about all the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through up until this point makes every bit of this that much sweeter.”

As a franchise, the Hawks have come a long way after years of rebuilding, going 73-158 the past three seasons to 39-31 and now a playoff berth.

They’ve also come a long way simply since a few months ago, a 14-20 start under Lloyd Pierce transformed into a 25-11 second half under interim coach Nate McMillan, who took over March 1. The Hawks have gone from the worst fourth-quarter team in the league (-1.9 plus-minus, or point differential, from the start of the season to Feb. 28) to the best (+3.1 from March 2 onward). They’ve won big and found ways to win ugly. They are just now getting healthy, finally able to showcase their depth, a blend of young talent and experienced veterans.

It wasn’t an easy path: in addition to a disappointing start, the Hawks were the third-most injured team in the league this season and their schedule was compressed because of COVID-19, with basically no practice time.

“It just shows that we had it all along,” Young said. “We just needed to believe in each other, just go out there and do it. For us, it’s exciting and a lot of the guys in (the locker room) are excited.”

Last March, Pierce stated the Hawks would make the playoffs the following season, and the team set that as its goal. Going from 20-47 to the postseason the very next year would require a significant leap, and they spent in free agency to beef up the roster. The past two years, especially, the roster hadn’t been built to win, outside a core group of talented young players, including Young and Collins.

Hawks John Collins and Trae Young celebrate at the end of a 120-116 victory over the Washington Wizards to clinch a playoff spot Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There’s a mental strain that comes with being on a rebuilding team and losing at a high rate.

“In certain situations, you just keep scratching your head wondering what’s happening, why are we continuing to lose,” Collins said. “And then on top of that, you want to compound that with the COVID (situation), my personal experiences, injuries, my suspension, a bunch of stuff that it’s not easy to get through. And I do this for a reason. I do this to get to places like the playoffs and play meaningful basketball and show what I can do on the court. So I’m just going to continue to fight for what I believe in, for myself and for my teammates.”

Obviously, rebuilding a franchise isn’t glamorous, when you miss the best, most exciting part of the season. Last year, the Hawks’ record didn’t even qualify them for the restart in the Orlando bubble, after the season was suspended March 11 because of COVID-19.

But, that’s making this season’s success even sweeter.

“As a fan of this game, looking at it from afar, you don’t necessarily get to see those years of those teams that are going through rebuilding stages and you don’t know the behind-the-scenes of when you lose and the emotion behind losing and not getting to experience the best part, in the postseason,” Young said.

“It’s definitely tough. And so for me, just knowing how hard it is to get to this position and having to really, literally build our team to get to this position, it makes it that much more gratifying that we’re here. But not satisfied, for sure, though.”

Having met their team goal already, with two regular-season games left, the Hawks (39-31) moved up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, as of Thursday morning.

They’re a half-game ahead of the Knicks and Heat. Now, the goal is to try to stay in fourth place, which would give them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (Nos. 4 and 5 will play each other in the first round, while No. 6 will play No. 3, likely Milwaukee).

As far as the biggest growth the Hawks have shown in the past month or so, the ability to buckle down and win games late stands out to McMillan. That surely will come in to play in the playoffs, where the margin for error is small and games often come down to one possession, one mistake, one shot.

“Just buying into the style of play that was necessary to give themselves a chance to win,” McMillan said. “We always talk about bringing the energy and playing with a sense of urgency. We talk about execution on both ends of the floor and playing a 48-minute game. All of those things, this team has been able to do and win ballgames. It’s going to come down to situations like (Wednesday), where it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be difficult, and you have to stay together.

“And they’ve shown that in fourth quarters and they’ve been able to win games. At the beginning of the season, we were playing really good basketball for 36 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes, but it was that fourth quarter, the last five minutes, where were losing games.”