‘They get to be a part of this’: Young, Hawks captivating Atlanta in playoffs

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and forward John Collins (20) congratulate each other after defeating the New York Knicks 103-89 in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Wendell Cruz

Credit: Wendell Cruz

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and forward John Collins (20) congratulate each other after defeating the New York Knicks 103-89 in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Trae Young turned away from his 3-point shot from the Knicks’ center court logo, taking a bow for the hostile crowd at Madison Square Garden.

“I know where we are,” Young, the Hawks point guard, said of New York after a series-clinching win in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference first-round playoff series Wednesday. “I know there’s a bunch of shows around this city, and I know what they do when the show is over.”

The show isn’t over yet, though. It’s more like a brief intermission, after the Hawks sent the Knicks on vacation, to use center Clint Capela’s bold promise entering the series-finale. They dominated, winning the final three games by an average of 14 points to close it out quickly, 4-1. Now, advancing that far for the first time since 2016, they’ll face the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals (Game 1 will be at 1 p.m. Sunday in Philadelphia).

Young’s first two years in the league, the Hawks were rebuilding, and he faced questions on if he’s a “winning player” as they went 49-100 over that span. Now, with more weapons around him, Young isn’t just proving that wrong — he’s putting on a show while doing so.

He and the Hawks are captivating Atlanta, taking the city along for the ride.

It’s not just because of a dramatic turnaround from a 14-20 start to finishing 41-31 under interim coach Nate McMillan, who took over for Lloyd Pierce March 1, and now reaching the second round of the playoffs.

It’s not just that the Hawks are good again, though that’s certainly a big part of it.

It’s that they’re really, really fun to watch, and now get to showcase their game on an even bigger stage. In the first round, for the first time in more than a year, the Hawks were able to host at full capacity with two sellout, standing-room-only crowds at State Farm Arena for Games 3 and 4. They’re also playing on national television in the playoffs, reaching a bigger audience, a rare occurrence in the regular season.

“Like I’ve said since I got here, this is a city that they love basketball, they love all their sports, just being able to put basketball along with this team, exciting (basketball), back in the city, it’s fun,” said Young, who averaged nearly 30 points and 10 assists per game in his first playoff series. “It’s a joy. I’m happy the city gets to be a part of this journey with us. It’s been a long time to get to the playoffs, and now we’re here. And we’re not satisfied. So I think it’s a good thing, and I know our fans are going to bring it this series when we come back home. It’s fun that they get to be a part of this.”

In Game 1, Young hit a game-winning floater in the final second to steal a game on the road, yelling “It’s quiet as (expletive)” in here after silencing the arena that had heckled him with some profanity of its own. In Game 2, he yelled “I’ll see you in the ‘A’” to the crowd while walking off the court after the Hawks’ lone loss in the series, after a rough second half.

Playing in Game 3′s blowout, Young riled up the home crowd during a fourth-quarter scuffle: “We’re in the ‘A’” he yelled, in a callback to Game 2.

Add Capela’s Dikembe Mutombo finger wag after a block in Game 3, his trash talk going into Game 5 and Young’s bow in the finale to another in the long list of ways the Hawks have entertained on the court, in addition to tallying up wins.

Moving forward in the playoffs, their rebuilding days behind them, the Hawks feel the support and excitement of the city behind them.

“I’ve been very critical of the Atlanta faithful, being the longest-tenured player here and I feel like I have a great relationship with them and I can say, very happy with how they showed up,” said power forward John Collins, playing in his fourth season. “Very happy with it, I go out and about in the city on a very limited basis, and the fandom is there. People are happy and people are excited. And I’m excited to see them in the arena with that energy, trying to help us win.”

This might be the first playoff appearance for Young and Collins, cornerstones of the Hawks’ rebuild, in addition to several others: De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, rookie Onyeka Okongwu. Veteran Lou Williams, an Atlanta native, is used to this, though, making his 10th trip.

Williams, Young remembered, was wondering what the State Farm Arena atmosphere would be like. The threat on social media from Knicks fandom was that New York would overtake it, painting it blue and orange, eliminating any homecourt advantage for Atlanta.

But it didn’t turn out that way at all.

“You felt the energy... (Williams) looked at me and said ‘This is different,’” Young said. “… When we got there, and saw the fans in the arena, it was good to see. He even noticed a little difference, too. It’s good to have the city excited, and I want to keep it this way.”