‘We can control our destiny:’ Hawks aim to avoid play-in

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan hands out fives to his players during an Orlando Magic time out as the Hawks pull away in the final minutes of a 112-96 victory Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan hands out fives to his players during an Orlando Magic time out as the Hawks pull away in the final minutes of a 112-96 victory Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Many of the younger Hawks players are experiencing a new feeling, a night-and-day departure from their first few years in Atlanta — for the first time in their NBA careers, they’re playing meaningful games down the final stretch of the season.

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They’re trying to finish strong and get the team to its first playoffs appearance since 2017. Every game counts.

“You want to do that heading into the postseason, so for us, for a lot of the guys that have been here, we haven’t been in this type of situation where games are important late down the stretch,” guard Trae Young said. “So this is definitely a test. It’s something that we can go through together and we can learn together.

“We have guys that have been in the playoffs, and for us that haven’t, we can definitely lean on those guys a lot for advice and things like that, especially going down the stretch when you’re playing in games that matter. It’s more fun when you play in games that matter, so now, it’s all about learning and going through it.”

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Under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks (36-30) have exceeded expectations in the season’s second half. Saturday’s win over the Bulls means they will least reach the play-in tournament, and Monday’s win against the Trail Blazers means they have sole possession of the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

That’s already quite a turnaround from last season’s 20-47 finish, but the Hawks want much more than a play-in berth. The top six teams in the East will go directly to the playoffs, but the No. 7-10 teams will have more hoops to jump through to earn a spot. After Monday’s games, they’re a half-game ahead of the No. 6 Heat and 1.5 games ahead of the No. 7 Celtics, owning tiebreakers against both. The No. 4 Knicks, winners of 12 of their past 13, would have to lose the right amount of games for the Hawks to climb (they’re 1.5 games ahead right now).

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and Portland Trail Blazers forward Norman Powell (24) battle for a rebound in the second half Monday, May 3, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and Portland Trail Blazers forward Norman Powell (24) battle for a rebound in the second half Monday, May 3, 2021, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

They have six regular-season games left, and control their own destiny, in terms of staying where they are in the standings. If they win enough not to slip, it’ll likely mean a first-round playoff series against New York (who swept the Hawks in the regular season). Again, though, every game counts between now and then.

“It shows a huge improvement from where we’ve been to where we are now,” Young said of the leap the Hawks have taken this season. “It’s really good to see. Obviously, it’s a totally different team. We’ve got a lot of guys. It’s a great feeling. Winning is a really good feeling, so hopefully we can keep it going.”

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If the Hawks fall to the No. 6 spot, they would play the No. 3 seed in the first round (as of now, that’s Milwaukee), and if they fall to the play-in tournament, they would have to win one or two more games, depending on their final rank, to reach the actual playoffs.

So, they need to fare well in these final six games, and fortunately five of them come at home: Phoenix, Washington twice, Orlando and Houston. They play Indiana on the road Thursday. Only one of those teams (Phoenix at 46-18) has a winning record.

The Hawks have had an “every game counts” mentality since the second half started, McMillan said. Aside from No. 1 Philadelphia (44-21), No. 2 Brooklyn (43-22) and No. 3 Milwaukee (40-24), and a few teams who have stayed near the bottom of the standings, the middle of the East has been jam-packed, with little separation among teams vying for position.

Hawks team stats

“That was talked about a lot time ago, really,” McMillan said. “We know exactly where we are and what we need to do. But that conversation was pretty much after the All-Star break, knowing that this was going to be a tight race going down the stretch, so the importance on all these games, we’re well aware of what we need to do.”

McMillan acknowledged the Hawks still have some developing to do in this final stretch. Some of that may be helped by the team getting healthier, as they’ve only had two players on the injury report for the past two games (De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish).

“There’s still work to be done,” McMillan said. “For us, we’ll learn a lot about ourselves in these remaining games, and the rest of this season. This team has not been in this position, or been playing for anything like this, in the last few years, and it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to see some growth from our team. And it’s a good challenge for us. Still work to be done and we’ll see where we are, and what we’re about, going down the stretch.”

The race is getting only tighter, wing Bogdan Bogdanovic said. But, the Hawks have positioned themselves well so far.

Now, they just have to continue that process.

“It’s good that we can control our destiny, you know?” Bogdanovic said. “And we put ourselves in this position, so that’s good. As long as we have control of the situation, it’s good. We’re going to be worried about ourselves, and we go game by game. There’s a lot of games left and we cannot think ahead. We don’t have room for that yet and as long as we’re winning and playing the right way, that’s it.”

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