Nate the Great and his Hawks are making us believe

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) blocks Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 23, 2021 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tami Chappel)
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) blocks Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 23, 2021 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tami Chappel)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Let’s call it what it was – the Hawks’ most impressive victory in many a year. Granted, winning wasn’t the main goal the past three seasons, but we saw Friday the most powerful indication yet that this organization has gotten its rebuild right. More than that, it showed that these Hawks have grown so much so fast that they could prevail on a night when they were handed a slew of excuses and needed none of them.

Their opponent, the Miami Heat, played for the NBA title in the Disney bubble 6½ months ago. They took a while to reignite when the new season arrived in December, but they’ve playing well again. Most folks figure they’ll finish first in the NBA Southeast. Friday brought the chance to pull even with the Hawks atop the division and move ahead in Eastern Conference seeding. The teams split the season’s first two games; Friday’s winner would claim the head-to-head advantage, which is no small thing.

Speaking before the game, Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said: “We know exactly where we are and what we have to do. Even though we do have injuries, this is a tiebreaker game. It’s an important game with the standings being as close as they are and the number of games that are left in the season. Miami understands that. Our guys do, too.

“Our guys who are having to step in and play tonight know we have to come with the urgency that we always try to play with, that connection, doing that on both ends of the floor.”

As he spoke, at least one jaded listener thought, “Good luck with that.” For this key game, the Hawks were without half their roster. Trae Young and Tony Snell have bad ankles. Clint Capela has a sore back. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish have been out a while; Kris Dunn hasn’t played this season. That made six guys, including the Hawks’ two best guys, who couldn’t go.

No Trae, no way. Right?

Wrong. Final score: Hawks 118, Heat 103.

Said reserve guard Brandon Goodwin, who scored 17 points and made four assists: “That’s a big statement. We wanted to hit them in the mouth.”

Yeah, this is the NBA, which doesn’t get serious until the postseason. But the Hawks, who haven’t seen a postseason since 2017, are too new at this contention thing to be jaded. They played a better first half than even McMillan could have imagined, making nearly 60 percent of their shots. Then Miami scored the first eight points of the third quarter to take a working lead, and you figured that was that. It wasn’t.

After falling behind by seven points, the Hawks outscored the visitors 41-20. For the game, their bench outscored the Heat’s 51-21, and here we note: With so many starters missing, the Hawks’ second unit became the first, and their rotation included guys who mightn’t have played had all hands been on deck. (Like rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu, who started and outrebounded Bam Adebayo 7-3.)

Said McMillan: “We talk about believing every night – (you) play as a fist, play connected. These guys believe. Our bench was great.”

Then: “That team (Miami) was in the finals last year. That team is going to make you earn it. And we did.”

Six Hawks scored in double figures. Seven Hawks made a 3-pointer, and that was without Young doing anything but offering encouragement from the bench. Without Capela, the NBA’s leading rebounder, the Hawks outrebounded Miami 38-30. They made 12 steals. They scored 27 points off turnovers. You had to see it to believe it, which brings us to this:

McMillan writes the word “believe” on the whiteboard before every game. This performance brought us closer to believing in these Hawks than anything this club has done since … oh, I don’t know, maybe Feb. 6, 2015? That also was a Friday night in the A-T-L. Those Hawks, who would win 60 games, beat Golden State, which won 67. The Warriors would take that title. The Hawks got swept by LeBron in the Eastern finals.

That was two head coaches ago. McMillan seems as suited to these mostly young Hawks as Mike Budenholzer did to the 2014-15 assemblage of veterans. Budenholzer taught guys who’d been around how to win bigger. McMillan is teaching a ridiculously young core and teaching it to win, period.

The Hawks were 14-20 on March 1, when Lloyd Pierce was fired and McMillan tapped as his successor. They’re 19-7 since. Getting Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari healthy has helped, but the Hawks under Pierce never did what they’ve begun to do under McMillan – guard somebody when it matters.

Against these Hawks, the Heat of Jimmy Butler and Adebayo and Trevor Ariza, the Heat mustered 14 fourth-quarter points. Without Young and Capela, not to mention Hunter and Reddish and Snell and Dunn, the Hawks stretched a six-point lead to 16.

Said McMillan, proudly: “Only 14 points (allowed) in the fourth quarter.”

Then: “You definitely want to build off this. Having Trae and De’Andre and Tony on the sidelines watching tonight – we always talk about playing together and playing the game the right way; playing 48 minutes and getting organized and executing down the stretch; defensively getting organized and getting stops. All those things we talk about every single game. For us to be shorthanded and to be able to do that tonight against a very good Miami team – again, believe. Believe what we’re talking about. If we do and we do it together, you will give yourself a chance to win games.”

Granted, it was just one game in a shorter-than-usual-but-still-lengthy regular season. It also was the sort of game this team Hawks hasn’t played, let alone won, since Travis Schlenk was hired as general manager and the teardown-to-build-up commenced. The new Hawks won by 15. It might be time to start believing.

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