‘Underdog’ Hawks are motivated by doubters in playoffs

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan hands out fives to his players during a victory on April 20, 2021. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan hands out fives to his players during a victory on April 20, 2021. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

A panel of 16 experts at ESPN made predictions for the NBA’s play-in tournament and the first round of the playoffs.

Concerning the matchup between the No. 4 seed Knicks and No. 5 seed Hawks, the consensus was clear: 14 picked the Knicks to win, and just two picked the Hawks.

On one hand, the Knicks have homecourt advantage and swept the Hawks in the regular season, so some favoring of New York makes sense. On the other, the Hawks are getting healthy and hitting their stride at the right time, looking to earn some respect and recognition from national media — this series provides the perfect opportunity to do so, if they can pull it off.

“I definitely feel like this will give us a big swing of momentum in the national media,” power forward John Collins said. “I feel like everybody in this organization has been fighting for us to get more national attention. We fought to get to this position, to earn an opportunity. There’s not a bigger opportunity and a bigger stage in the first round, arguably so, so we have to take advantage of that.”

Often, recognition for teams comes from consistently winning on a big stage, and building up a winning reputation. Sometimes, it’s channeled through different storylines or players gaining national traction (the Knicks’ Julius Randle earning his first All-Star nod, for example). But, it comes easier for some of the league’s bigger markets and more storied franchises, New York obviously falling in both those categories.

Even Lakers star LeBron James tweeted in April “the league is simply better off when the Knicks are winning.”

If you ask interim Hawks coach Nate McMillan, the NBA itself is invested in a New York playoff run (which would obviously necessitate a Hawks defeat in the first round). This is the Hawks’ first trip to the postseason since the 2016-17 season and the Knicks’ first trip since the 2012-13 season.

Ahead of Sunday’s Game 1 in New York, McMillan has discussed that with the team, and used it as motivation.

“I’ve gone as far as saying the league wants this, they need this. ... New York, you know, this is a big market,” McMillan said. “It’s a big market for the league and New York has been out of the playoffs for a number of years. And this is a team that our league, they want to see. There’s a huge fanbase. They want to see New York in the playoffs. They want to see the Lakers in the playoffs. Teams like that, the Boston Celtics, they want to see these teams in the playoffs, and I put New York in that category, that the league wants to see it, everybody wants to see this.

“Even to the fact that, our game was moved to Sunday. They want to see this. So yes, we have talked about that. We have talked about the advantages of this situation and some things that we’re going to have to face going into the game with kind of everyone picking New York to win. And a lot of folks wanting to see New York in the playoffs. So it’s a battle, it’s a challenge, that just being New York, all of that comes with playing in New York. And they’ve had a really good season. So I think the NBA is excited about them being back in the playoffs.”

For wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, though, it’s no big deal if the Knicks are getting more favorable attention ahead of the series.

It may even be a good thing.

“I like to come off that position, the underdog position,” Bogdanovic said.