Belief comes easy when you’re ahead. It’s when you’re behind that faith gets tested. The Hawks are in arrears for the first time this postseason. They trail Philadelphia 2-1. They’ve lost De’Andre Hunter, maybe their best two-way player, to a torn meniscus. In Round 1, it was clear after Game 1 that the Hawks were the better team. In Round 2, Game 1 marks the only time the Hawks have seemed the stronger side.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The 76ers are the East’s top seed. After the best tank job in NBA history – as part of then-GM Sam Hinkie’s “Process,” his team went 47-199 over three seasons – they’ve made the playoffs four years running. Twice they were beaten by the Celtics. In 2019 they fell a game short of the Eastern finals only because Kawhi Leonard’s baseline jumper finally bobbled home.
Hinkie’s rebuild began in 2013. He resigned in 2016, leaving behind Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid scored 39 points against the Hawks in Game 1, 40 in Game 2. Simmons – the 6-foot-11 point guard – had 18 points and seven assists in Game 3; he also took the lead in guarding Trae Young.
The Hawks’ rebuild commenced when Travis Schlenk was hired away from Golden State in 2017. He has turned over the entire roster. As late as March 1, it was possible to wonder if Schlenk’s process – he has never sought to liken his with Hinkie’s, which tells us how polarizing the Sixers’ redo remains – had been a major whiff.
The Hawks were 14-20, in 11th place in the East. Schenk’s hand-picked coach – Lloyd Pierce, who apprenticed with, ahem, Philly – was overmatched. At that moment, nobody envisioned a Round 2 series matching the Hawks and Sixers. Nobody imagined the Hawks making the playoffs. But Schlenk fired Pierce, and the Hawks under Nate McMillan took flight, and in their first postseason run since 2017 they won five of their first six games.
They’ve since lost two in a row. To take this series, they’ll have to win at least once more in Philadelphia, and hanging on to take Game 1 after leading by 26 was tough enough. This series isn’t nearly over. Should Embiid tweak his fraying meniscus, the Hawks could win in six. But the loss of Game 3, in which the Hawks trailed by 22 at State Farm Arena, marks the first crisis point of this team’s return to postseason.
“Their size has had an impact on this series,” McMillan said Friday night, “guarding these guys in the post. You’ve got Simmons at 6-10 (close!) posting you up. You’ve got (Tobias) Harris, who’s a really good post player, and you know you’ve got Embiid with (reserve center Dwight) Howard down there in the paint.”
Still, the smallish Hawks are pretty good at the thing which can cut even the biggest opponent down to size. They can make 3-pointers, though they didn’t in Game 3. They missed 17 of their 23 trey tries. They can’t win that way. Monday’s Game 4 offers another opportunity and, should the Hawks prevail, the pressure would fall back on the Sixers to take Game 5 in a tied series.
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
McMillan again: “That was the message at the end of (Game 3). Stay together. This is going to be tough. We knew it was going to be tough. You stay together. You don’t separate in difficult times, and we go back to the drawing board tomorrow and study our tape. You stay together in tough times like this.”
Because these Hawks hadn’t made the playoffs before, we knew this would be a voyage of discovery. Would they be tough enough to hang in when things didn’t go their way? (Such a question never arose in Round 1.) “Everything will be on the table,” McMillan said of his Game 4 approach, “because we know their size is a factor. I thought they just pounded us in the paint tonight. We’ll see if we can make some adjustments here.”
Should the Hawks lose this series in five – that’s not a prediction, BTW – they’ll exit the playoffs having made the watching world remember they exist. There would be no shame in losing to the No. 1 seed. The guess here is that McMillan and Co. are resourceful enough to win at least once more, and a series that’s tied at 2-2 can break either way. We know the Hawks are skilled. We’re about to learn how deeply they believe.