Since the first half of Game 1, Philadelphia had outscored the Hawks by 61 points. The 76ers had won Games 2 and 3 pulling away, and they held a healthy lead at the half of this Game 4. Hold any part of that advantage and they’d be staring at a Game 5 clinch in Philly. No muss, no fuss.

ExploreThere will be a Game 6

Right now the East’s top seed is staring at a tied series. Right now it’s looking at the Hawks and asking, as Butch asked Sundance: “Who ARE those guys?”

Outplayed for long stretches of this Round 2, the Hawks have drawn even. Their 103-100 victory Monday wasn’t so much a triumph of guile or style as a victory of the heart. Over the past two games, the Hawks had been given reason to wonder if they could give Philadelphia much of a series. The second half of Game 4 makes us wonder something we hadn’t much considered after the thumping losses in Games 2 and 3: Can these Hawks really take this thing?

Said Nate McMillan of his young and merry men: “They just stay with it. They didn’t crack. They stayed together.”

Down by 18 in the second quarter, down by 13 at the break … this wasn’t looking good. But John Collins, not always the most assertive player, started chasing down rebounds and whomping down dunks (three in the quarter). The Sixers never found their stride again. The Hawks wouldn’t allow it. Said McMillan: “Our defense showed up.”

Yep. The Sixers had 62 points at halftime. They managed 38 thereafter. The great Joel Embiid didn’t score a second-half basket, missing 12 shots, the last a layup that would have put his team ahead with 8.8 seconds left. Philly, a postseason participant for a fourth year running, was outplayed at the end of a vintage playoff game by a team still unsure of its full capabilities. This we know, though. Trae Young isn’t going down without a fight.

He looked hurt in the first quarter. He was wearing tape on his right shoulder. He hoisted such a clunker of 3-point shot that it might have shattered the backboard glass. In a postseason again a-swim with injuries to big-name guys, was Young the next in line?

Said Young: “I got hit last game. It’s been kind of sore.”

Hawks guard Trae Young comes back in the game during the 4th quarter with his arm and shoulder iced down against the Philadelphia 76ers in game 4 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Monday, Jun 14, 2021, in Atlanta.
Caption
Hawks guard Trae Young comes back in the game during the 4th quarter with his arm and shoulder iced down against the Philadelphia 76ers in game 4 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Monday, Jun 14, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Here’s what the slightly sore Young did in the game that was going to tell us whether this would really become a series – scored 25 points, made 18 assists and, over the final 2:15, made every play that needed making.

With the Hawks down four, Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a jumper. Collins seized the rebound and fed Young, who returned the ball to Collins in the corner, from which he hoisted the 3-pointer that pulled the Hawks within one. A minute later, Young’s floater put the Hawks ahead. Then he hit two free throws to make it a 3-point lead. Then he hit two more to ice it.

And how, he was asked afterward, was his shoulder? Said Young: “In the game, in the moment, I didn’t feel it.”

Also: “The NBA – it’s a long game. I love the way we fight.”

Know who didn’t much like it? Doc Rivers, the distinguished former Hawk who coaches the Sixers. He accused his men of playing “hero basketball,” saying, “When you do that, you usually lose, especially when the other team outworks you the whole (freakin’) game.”

McMillan: “The hustle game, the scrap game, was one we felt we had to win.”

In the biggest game of the Hawks’ season, they made only 36.6 percent of their shots. They were outrebounded by eight. But they took 101 shots, which is a lot, because they took 12 offensive rebounds and made only four turnovers. They were almost out of it by halftime, almost but not quite. Whenever the question is asked, “Can the young Hawks dig deep and win ugly?”, the tape of this second half should serve as all the evidence needed.

And let’s be honest: The longer this goes – it’s guaranteed to go at least six games – the more we wonder how long Embiid’s knee will hold. He needed to checked in the locker room during the first half, and by game’s end he couldn’t make any shot except a free throw. It’s now a best-of-three series, and nothing rankles a favorite like an opponent that won’t roll over when it falls behind.

Said Rivers: “I’ll have to watch the film, but my eyes told me we blew a golden opportunity tonight.”

Game 4 was a must-win for the Hawks. They won it. If they can beat Philly twice more this week, they’ll be in Eastern Conference finals, perhaps against the more prosaic Bucks and not the star-spangled-but-injury-beset Nets. At halftime Monday, this breakthrough season appeared to have run its course. Not now, though. After this escape, these Hawks seem capable of anything.

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