‘They’ve been vocal:’ Veterans help young Hawks prepare for playoffs

On an experienced Houston team, Clint Capela always was viewed as “the young guy,” he remembers.

The Rockets made it to the playoffs every year Capela was there. Now in his first season playing with the Hawks, Capela, who turned 27 on Tuesday, gets to help several teammates through their first playoff experience.

“I really feel like (I’m in) a new role here, that vet role,” Capela said. “So I get to share my experience, and I really feel (listened to) about everything I say. It’s really fun to be part of it.”

When the No. 5-seed Hawks play the No. 4-seed Knicks in Game 1 on Sunday in New York, it will be the first NBA playoff game for many players, including Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins (four of the Hawks’ presumptive starters, alongside Capela), in addition to wing Kevin Huerter.

It’ll be an adjustment, as postseason basketball is a different experience from the regular season (this will be the first playoff appearance for many of the Knicks, including Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, as well). It’s usually more physical, with fewer fouls called, and you have to stay mentally focused as teams display more of a sense of urgency. That’s why having veterans around such as Capela, as well as Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Solomon Hill, all of whom are familiar with playing this time of year, comes in handy.

The veterans have been locked in and picked up the intensity in practice this week, Huerter said, knowing what’s to come in the playoffs (because the Hawks avoided the play-in tournament, they actually had six days to prepare, a stark contrast from playing every other day in the regular season).

“Just the physicality, they kind of keep telling us, don’t expect the same foul calls, expect the game to be physical,” Huerter said. “We know the Knicks are the No. 1 defensive team in the league, and they already play a physical brand of basketball. So those guys, they’ve been vocal and I think just trying to get us mentally prepared for what’s going to come.”

The biggest thing Williams, playing in his 16th NBA season and about to make his 10th playoff appearance, has emphasized to the group? Attention to detail is key, whether it’s boxing out on free throws, communicating, getting to the right spots on offense and defense or simply giving yourself the most opportunities to score.

Some of those things can get overlooked in the regular season because it’s such a long grind, Williams pointed out. But not doing the little things could be what brings a team’s season to an end.

Another difference between the regular season and playoffs is the structure of games, getting to play the same team potentially seven times in a row. That makes it come down to the little things even more.

“Everybody’s going to know everything,” Williams said. “By Game 3, they’re going to know our game plan, we’re going to know their game plan. It’s just going to come down to who can take care of the basketball, who can execute, and who’s going to be on the same page. So I think that’s one of the most challenging things about the playoffs. It becomes chess.”

Even if veterans talk about their experiences, there’s nothing like actually playing in those games firsthand, Williams added.

“You share your experiences and the things that you’ve gone through, trying win a playoff series, and you take the trials and tribulations, you take the things that you weren’t as successful with and you try to give them as much of that as you can,” Williams said. “And then at the same time, their experience is going to be unique to what they’re going to go out there and do.”

For Young, it’s helpful to have teammates to lean on and bounce questions off of them, but it still comes down to playing your game and handling it in your own way.

“Everybody’s going to handle things differently,” Young said. “There not too much in our ears about it because they want us to still be who we are, but obviously if we have questions, or things like that, we know who to go to. They’ve been around, and they’ve been playing in meaningful games throughout their careers. To be able to have those type of guys around, it’s going to help.”