Here’s what could await the Hawks in the playoffs

Hawks guard Trae Young (right) fights for a rebound with Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The Hawks won 135-103 over Phoenix Suns. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Hawks guard Trae Young (right) fights for a rebound with Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The Hawks won 135-103 over Phoenix Suns. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017. That’s only a three-year absence, though it seems longer. (Fun fact: Their leading scorer when they lost to the Wizards in Round 1 that year was … Dennis Schroder.) This team has clinched a postseason spot, though these playoffs offer two tiers of qualification, same as Delta sells seats in first class and coach.

As of Friday, the Hawks trailed New York by a game for the No. 4 seed; they led Boston and Miami, both by a game, for the Nos. 6 and 7. Should the Hawks claim the fourth seed, they’ll hold the home-court edge in Round 1. Should they slip to seventh, they would be part of the play-in tournament, which means their playoff experience could last all of two games.

There’s a better chance the Hawks move up from No. 5 than down. They’ll end the regular season with four games against teams below .500, all to be staged at State Farm Arena. The Hawks are 21-11 at home. In their most recent game here, they beat Phoenix by 32 points, the Suns having arrived holding the NBA’s best record.

When healthy, which Hawks have seldom been, the Hawks under Nate McMillan have been pretty darn good. There’s a real chance that everyone except Cam Reddish will be available when the playoffs commence. That so many of the Hawks’ starters and second unit haven’t reached an NBA postseason – postseason newbies include Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic – it’s tough to project anything. Then again, the only playoff certainty is that LeBron James’ team has something no other club possesses, though the Lakers could land in the play-in tournament.

The Hawks made the playoffs every spring from 2008 through 2017. From 2011 through 2018, the team with LeBron represented the Eastern Conference in the finals. The best of those Hawks – the 60-win crew of 2014-15 – was swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the Eastern finals. A lesser band of Hawks was swept by the Cavs in the Eastern semis the next year.

So there’s your good news: If the Hawks face LeBron’s team this postseason, they’ll have advanced further than any group of Atlanta-era Hawks ever has. They’ll be playing for the NBA title. That’s not a prediction. That said, the entire East has a different look. No team on this side of the bracket is anything approaching invincible.

As it stands, Philadelphia holds the No. 1 seed. The 76ers haven’t reached the NBA Finals since Allen Iverson was talking about practice. Last week the Hawks lost consecutive games in Philly by 44 and 22 points, but those proved nothing. Young didn’t play in the first game. Huerter missed the second. Bogdanovic and Hunter missed both.

Brooklyn holds the No. 2 seed, but that’s subject to change. The Nets entered the weekend having lost four in a row. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have worked together in only seven games. It’s possible the Nets, on star power alone, roll through the East. It’s also possible they could be eliminated in Round 1. Brooklyn ranks 25rd in defensive efficiency; the Hawks, FYI, are 22nd.

Milwaukee could move ahead of the Nets for the second seed, but the Bucks aren’t what they were. They won 60 games in 2018-19, Mike Budenholzer’s first in Milwaukee after leaving the Hawks. They were eliminated in Round 2 by Toronto, which rented Kawhi Leonard for the sole purpose of playing in the postseason. The Raptors took the NBA title by beating Golden State. Then Kawhi left for the Clippers. The Bucks lost in Round 2 to Miami in the Disney bubble last year.

The Knicks have been a nice story, provided you don’t hate all things New York. Under Tom Thibodeau, they play defense – Tibs’ teams always guard – and have seen Julius Randle, who entered the NBA in 2014, develop into a star. If the playoffs began today, they would be the Hawks’ Round 1 opponent. It will mark the Knicks’ first playoff appearance since 2013.

Tiebreakers: The Knicks hold the head-to-head edge over the Hawks, having swept their three games. The Hawks hold the edge over Boston and Miami, the teams just below them. That Boston and Miami will meet twice next week means it would be difficult for the Hawks to fall below both and into the play-in.

The Hawks, miracle of miracles, are finally getting healthy. Their victory over Phoenix – the Suns were, to be fair, playing on the second night of a back-to-back – marked another signature victory, which the Hawks have begun to accumulate. They beat Miami without Young and Clint Capela. They beat the Bucks without Young. They beat Portland and Phoenix in the span of three days. This isn’t a team backing into the playoffs. This is a team that’s playing as well as any Hawks team since 2015.

There’s no prohibitive favorite in the East. (With LeBron and Anthony Davis just returning from injury, there isn’t in the West, either.) There’s no bubble this time. All games will be held on someone’s home court. These Hawks haven’t worked often at full health. They haven’t played any playoff games in four years. They’re one of the NBA’s many mystery teams.

They could be overwhelmed by the experience. They also could rise to the moment. Just sayin’.

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