They were halfway there. Halfway to the Eastern Conference finals, which nobody of sound mind would have imagined for these Hawks when they fired their coach on March 1. Halfway to the NBA’s final four, where this franchise has ventured once in 51 years.
They led by six points after 75 seconds. They led by 12 halfway through the first quarter. They led by six 30 seconds before the half. When next they scored, it was to cut a 10-point deficit to eight. Unlike Games 4 and 5, which saw the Hawks override Philadelphia leads of 18 and 26 points, they couldn’t rescue this game. The final score was 104-99, not far off the 102-100 of not-dissimilar Game 6 loss to Boston here in 1988.
There was, however, a difference. On that fateful Friday night, the Hawks played scared. On this one, they were loose and swift and as pretty to behold as they’ve ever been – and this crew is a lovely watch – and the question halfway through the first quarter wasn’t how bad the Hawks were going to blow it but how ghastly the 76ers’ collapse would be.
The East’s No. 1 seed was on the brink. Two wasted leads don’t play well in any city, and Philly is harsher burg than most. The Sixers looked dazed at the beginning, just as they’d been at the end of the past two games. “Really we were getting anything we wanted,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said, and that giddy moment it was clear that Philly, which filled three of the 10 slots on the NBA’s all-defensive teams, still had no clue how to halt, or even slow, Trae Young.
Maybe it’s because the Sixers were too busy bickering with each other. Joel Embiid yelled at a teammate. Dwight Howard yelled at a different teammate. The heralded Ben Simmons, who’d done little this series, was doing even less. Philly coach Doc Rivers, who played for the Hawks in that lost Game 6 to Boston, was reduced to begging for calls.
Give the Sixers credit, though. They hit the Hawks hard to open the second half – four quick 3-pointers, three by Seth Curry, the fourth by Embiid. Then Curry hit again. The Hawks were no longer ahead; they were 10 points in arrears. Given the Sixers’ maladroitness with managing leads, you really didn’t expect this to last. Somehow it did.
The fourth quarter began with Onyeka Okongwu missing two free throws. Then Bogdan Bogdanovic missed two. Had the pressure of a close-out game finally descended?
Said coach Nate McMillan: “I don’t think we were tight. I think we started settling – a lot of one-pass-and-a-shot, no-pass-and-a-shot.”
Said Young: “I don’t think it was (us getting) anxious. It’s just basketball. It’s hard. It was two good teams battling.”
McMillan: “Defensively they got after us. Offensively we never got that rhythm to start the second half. … Those shots we were taking early, we could have gotten late.”
Inside the final four minutes: Danilo Gallinari’s 3-pointer off a Huerter feed cut a seven-point lead to four; then Young hit a trey at the shot-clock horn over Tyrese Maxey. “The arena was euphoria,” Huerter said. In that moment, you’d have bet several houses on this one ending with Young hitting the winner from 50 feet at the horn. But no.
Young missed a floater on the Hawks’ next possession. Then he lost the ball on a drive. Then Huerter missed a 3-pointer. The Sixers – strategically keeping Simmons off the floor on offensive sets – made enough free throws to carry them over the line. It took a while, but the No. 1 seed finally made a stand.
Now it’s back to Philly for Game 7 on Sunday night. The Hawks have already won twice there in this series, so it’s nowhere near unthinkable that could do it again. Of concern is Bogdanovic’s sore right knee, though the Hawks had no postgame update on the severity. (Bogdanovic had a rough night, scoring seven points on 11 shots and making three turnovers.)
Said McMillan, reminding his audience that all is not lost: “We put ourselves in position to play a Game 7.”
By now, you’re doubtless wondering where the boilerplate recitation of awful moments in Atlanta sports is. Having witnessed (too) many of those, I can attest that this had a different feel. The Hawks didn’t win Game 6, but they didn’t really throw it away. They just got beat. It happens. To quote Mr. Young, basketball is hard.
Can the Hawks win Game 7 on the road? Sure they can. The reason these teams are about to play a seventh time is because they’re well-matched. The Sixers aren’t as overpowering as a No. 1 often is, and the Hawks are way better than a garden-variety No. 5. And the Hawks have Trae Young, who even on a lesser night scored 34 points and made 12 assists. I say it again: Trae Young can do anything.
If I pick the Hawks to win Sunday, you’ll scream at me for jinxing them. So let’s do this: Let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their trip to the Eastern finals was merely delayed, not derailed. And here we’ll turn to center Clint Capela for our parting bit of wisdom: “All we know is we were up 3-2 and we’re not anymore.”
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