The smarter team won. The tougher team won. The better team won. That team is bound for the Eastern Conference finals. That team, believe it or not, is the Atlanta Hawks.

We’re not accustomed to seeing Atlanta teams play like this when it matters most, but by the time these Hawks are done they might have reconfigured the way we — and the world — view Atlanta sports. Trae Young, their shining star, missed 18 of 23 shots in a Game 7 on the road, and still he steered his callow club to a 103-96 victory over the East’s No. 1 seed.

That’s not supposed to happen. Young and his team made it happen. Oh, and where’s Luka Doncic? Is his team still playing? (Answer: no.)

On this historic night off Pattison Avenue in the City of Brotherly Love, the other Hawks reminded us that, as much as this is Trae Young’s team, there’s more to it than Ice Trae. Kevin Huerter, taken later in Round 1 on the 2018 night this franchise acquired Young for Doncic, hit the game’s first basket and nearly all the big ones from thereon, finishing with 27 points.

John Collins played big. Clint Capela kept slamming home Young’s lobs. (The point guard finished with 10 assists.) Danilo Gallinari made huge 3-pointers and, in the moment that washed away all doubt, wrested the ball from the fearsome Joel Embiid and fled to the clinching dunk of a classic series. When last this franchise graced a series so compelling, the 1988 Hawks lost Game 6 at home by two points and Game 7 in Boston Garden, also by two. This team tripped over a similar Game 6, but they never let Game 7 get away. They needed it more.

Said Nate McMillan, who on Feb. 28 was an assistant coach on a 14-20 team: “I can’t believe how calm I was through this game, but I knew they were going to give me everything they had.”

Then: “I felt like they were built for this moment, to win this game.”

On March 1, the Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce, the coach they’d hired to shepherd this young bunch. They promoted McMillan, a proud pro, and somehow an apparently mismatched bunch became a real team. They spent the first part of this season blowing leads. They spent the past week overcoming two huge deficits and facing down the 76ers in a Game 7 that for 46 minutes twisted in the wind.

Hawks guard Trae Young drops in a floater for two points against the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of the third quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton /
Hawks guard Trae Young drops in a floater for two points against the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of the third quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

And then it didn’t. Young hit a floater to put the Hawks up two. Embiid tied it. Huerter hit over Seth Curry to untie it forever. Ben Simmons drove for what should have been the tying dunk, but Simmons is such a reluctant shooter that he passed to Matisse Thybulle instead. Collins fouled Thybulle, who missed one of two free throws. Young found Capela for yet another lob dunk.

Then Young hit a 29-footer to make it a six-point game. Then Huerter drew a three-shot foul from Thybulle and didn’t miss. Then Gallinari stole the ball. After seven games and 15 days, the Hawks had proved their point. They were better than the East’s No. 1 seed. After a four-year rebuild, they’ve crashed the big time.

Said McMillan: “It starts with our point guard. Trae plays that style of basketball.”

Said Sixers coach Doc Rivers: “He had six turnovers tonight and was 5-for-23, but the fact that we had to give him so much attention allowed other guys to get off. He is definitely their guy. He’s having a heck of a run.”

Only a fearless team with a fearless floor leader could have done as this one has — win five road games over two series. “I loved the whole thing,” Young said, “even the (trash-)talking. We’ve got two (series victories).”

Next up: The Milwaukee Bucks, as coached by Mike Budenholzer, who coached the Hawks the only other time they’d reached the Eastern finals. That was in 2015. Those Hawks were promptly dispatched in four games by Cleveland and LeBron James. First prediction: No way this team gets swept. Second prediction: Hawks in six.

Sorry. This is getting way ahead of ourselves, but after this series and this Game 7 the Hawks’ future appears limitless. “It took a lot of losses for us to get here,” Young said. “For us guys who’ve been through this rebuild, this is a lot better. And the best thing is, this is just the beginning.”

We live in Atlanta, where dreams of glory go to wither. The weird part about the Hawks’ rise is that it has happened so fast we haven’t had a chance to become doubters. If some saw the Game 6 loss as yet another in a series of civic flops, it was only because we’ve been conditioned to such kneejerk responses. But if you looked hard, nothing about these Hawks has seemed Atlanta-like.

They weren’t afraid of heading back to Philly because they’d won there twice already. Nothing about the Sixers frightened them because — let’s face it — if the No. 1 seed was all that great it wouldn’t have blown leads of 18 and 26 points in the span of three days. And that’s the thing about these Hawks: Nothing frightens them. That starts with Young, who on what could have been a horrid night kept pushing and pushed so hard he hauled his team over the line that separates conference finalists from Round 2 losers.

McMillan has been the Hawks’ interim head coach for 50 games. His team has won 35 of those. His team has gone from lousy to tremendous in the wink of an eye. That’s a transition nobody in this world saw coming. Asked Sunday night what he thought of the group he’d inherited, McMillan said: “I thought we had a chance to be a pretty good team.”

Good call, coach. Good call.

About the Author