On winning streak, Hawks reversing fourth-quarter woes

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (center) talks in a huddle with the team during the first half against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, March 13, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

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Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan (center) talks in a huddle with the team during the first half against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, March 13, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Collapsing in the fourth quarter had become the dominant narrative surrounding this Hawks team.

That’s starting to shift, thanks to five straight wins — outscoring opponents 159-103 in the fourth over that span — under interim coach Nate McMillan. For the first time since winning seven straight games from Dec. 28 2016-Jan. 10 2017, the last season the Hawks made the playoffs, they find themselves on a five-game winning streak. They are now 19-20 after the recent success.

“It’s obviously a new feeling, something I want to continue to keep having,” said power forward John Collins, the longest-tenured Hawk whose rookie season came the year after that win streak, when the franchise started rebuilding.

They’ve mostly achieved it by dominating the fourth quarter and playing a full 48 minutes, banishing the sluggish finishes with defensive breakdowns and scoring droughts that had often doomed them in the first half of the season, against all caliber of opponent. Two weeks ago, the Hawks were tied for the worst fourth-quarter point differential in the league (-1.9); they’ve performed so well in the last five fourth quarters that they’ve vaulted to No. 17 at -0.2.

They won the fourth quarter against Miami 31-14, coming back from a three-point deficit to win 94-80; won it 37-22 against Orlando (12-point deficit) to win 115-112; and won it 37-26 against Toronto (10-point deficit) to win 121-120. They lost the fourth 25-23 in a blowout 121-106 win over Sacramento, with starters playing less time than they would in a close game. Sunday, they had a three-point lead against Cleveland and won the fourth quarter 31-16, turning a close game into another big win, 100-82.

Through their 14-20 start, the Hawks had a 120.4 defensive rating in the fourth and a -8.2 net rating (both marks are 30th in the league). With an absurd 86.6 defensive rating in the fourth over the past five wins, coming in a small sample size with some struggling teams in the mix, all in all they’ve now got a 116.1 defensive rating (28th) in the fourth and a -1.0 net (16th).

After previous Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce was fired, McMillan took over for the final two games before the All-Star break, the wins in Miami and Orlando. Before that, the Hawks hadn’t won more than three games in a row, which they had done twice.

“We continue to show growth and we continue to understand how to finish, how to win these games, and playing in the fourth quarter, understanding time-score situations, that you can’t play the fourth quarter like you play the first quarter,” McMillan said. “You have to understand the time, the score, the situation. We talk about our three C’s, in the sense of being calm, clear on what we need to do out there and being connected on both ends of the floor.”

“... That’s a process, of learning how to win ballgames. Getting stops, defensively, executing offensively, and we’ve been able to do that in these last few games.”

Before the Hawks entered the All-Star break, McMillan gave players a message about needing to put together a consistent win streak, if they still wanted to reach their goal of making the postseason, or at least the play-in tournament.

“We needed to go on a stretch of wins,” McMillan said. “Put together consistent play on both ends of the floor. We had been playing, all season long we had been playing, we win one game, we lose three. We win one, we lose another three. Get some consistency and put a stretch of wins together. We know we need to do that, really for the rest of this season. You just can’t drop three, four games and expect to stay in the race. And they’ve been able to focus on that, put together 48 minutes and put together a stretch of wins, here.”

Since taking over, McMillan has said that he can’t change much of the Hawks’ strategy in the middle of the season, especially when they get basically zero practice time because of the upended schedule. But, he wanted the Hawks to take what they were already doing and execute better, particularly down the stretch, which they’ve accomplished so far.

When asked if McMillan had implemented anything particular that had helped the Hawks get over their fourth-quarter struggles, Collins gave him credit for gradually adjusting things since taking over.

“It’s obviously different each game, but I definitely feel like coach is trying to change things over his way, slowly but surely, obviously it’s a process and not something that he can just come in as a new coach and just put all this stuff on us and it’d be really tough,” Collins said. “So I feel like he’s doing a good job of making small changes here or there and just implementing what he wants to implement slowly and it’s successful. So obviously I’m quiet, I’m listing to coach, I’m locked in.”

Obviously, the Hawks still have a long way to go to achieve their goals, and they’re still hoping to get much healthier in the coming weeks, with De’Andre Hunter, Kris Dunn and Cam Reddish out.

But a stretch like this, one they haven’t achieved in more than four years, can bring confidence to a group that needed a boost.

“... When you win a couple close games, two or three in a row, or four in a row, it gives you that confidence to keep doing that, and the fact that once you know that you can do it, you’ve got to bring it every night,” said veteran forward Danilo Gallinari. “And you’ve got to believe that you can do it every night.”