The best Hawks win ever? Yep. But there’s this one caveat

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan coaches up Trae Young, Lou Williams, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and John Collins during a timeout against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan coaches up Trae Young, Lou Williams, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and John Collins during a timeout against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Philadelphia. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

To label Wednesday’s Game 5 the biggest win in Atlanta-era Hawks annals is no reach. It came in a tied playoff series. It came on the road against a favored opponent. It came after trailing by 26 points. It puts the Hawks in position to clinch the series at home Friday. It was a great, great performance.

One caveat, though. (We’re Atlanta. There’s always a caveat.) The similarities between this Game 5 and the Game 5 that, for 48 hours, stood as the Hawks’ finest moment since leaving St. Louis are uncanny. What was once and briefly the biggest win in the team’s Atlanta history came May 18, 1988 and contained the same elements – except the 26-point deficit, though those Hawks did trail by eight after three quarters in Boston Garden – as Wednesday’s epic.

It was Game 5 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semis. The 112-104 victory put the Hawks ahead 3-2 in a series. It came against the team that had ruled the East for much of the decade. In a clinching Round 2 game in 1986, the Celtics outscored the Hawks 36-6 in the third quarter. But not on this night. Kevin Willis scored 27 points and took 14 rebounds. Dominique Wilkins had 25 points. Doc Rivers, who’s working against the Hawks this time, had 21 points and seven assists.

Those who recall Game 5 in the Garden – and Hawks fans of a certain age absolutely do – do so with a heapin’ helpin’ of wistfulness. On the Thursday before Game 6, the world seemed the Hawks’ oyster. By sundown Sunday, the team that authored that signature victory had been eliminated. (Oh, and the Braves fired manager Chuck Tanner that night.) We remember that Game 5 more for what didn’t happen afterward.

After making 50.6 percent of their shots in Game 5, the Hawks made only 43.4 percent in Game 6 at an Omni that was as wired in a way it had never been. (The Hawks conceded they were too amped.) Wilkins had 35 points, Rivers 32. The rest of the Hawks managed 33. The Hawks held leads that Friday night, but never for long. They trailed after every quarter.

The game came down to an out-of-bounds play with Boston up two. The ball was supposed to go to Wilkins. Rivers’ inbounds pass went to sub Cliff Levingston, who never looked for anyone else. He drove the lane and flipped up a running left-handed hook. (Note: Levingston was right-handed.) It had no chance. Dennis Johnson grabbed the rebound and dribbled upcourt as time expired, one hand aloft in salutation of an escape even the aging Celtics weren’t sure they could manage.

(Note also: Levingston’s nickname was “House,” bestowed by teammates because he hoisted enough bricks to build one.)

The fizzle of Game 6 begat the transcendent Game 7 back in Boston. Wilkins had his finest moment, scoring 47 points on an array of impossible shots. The Hawks made 52 baskets to the Celtics’ 45. The Celtics, as often happened then, shot 25 free throws to the Hawks’ 12. Larry Bird scored 34 points, matching Wilkins shot for outrageous shot in a fourth quarter that remains a staple of NBA TV programming. The Hawks played as well as they could have. They made 57.1 percent of their shots. They lost 118-116.

In the years since, games 5 and 6 of the 2015 Round 2 with Washington stand at the top of Hawks victories. Al Horford shoveled home Dennis Schroder’s miss to win Game 5 and give the Hawks a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 saw Paul Pierce, whose banked 3-pointer won Game 3, sink another last-gasp trey that was released just after the buzzer.

Those victories sent the Hawks to their first Eastern Conference finals. They were swept by Cleveland in a series that saw DeMarre Carroll get hurt, Kyle Korver get hurt and Horford get ejected. Six years later, we recall those Hawks more for the swiftness of their dismissal than their 60 regular-season wins.

So yeah, we’re Atlanta. We’re the city of 28-3. But we’re also the city represented by a team that just rallied from 26 points behind – which is one more than the blown 25 of the Super Bowl, so ha! – and has torn through its first postseason since 2017 by stacking wonder upon wonder. What happened after the Game 5 win in 1988 mightn’t happen to these Hawks, who have trailed by an aggregate 44 points in the past two games and lost neither.

Trae Young can do anything. Nate McMillan has the magic plan. A ridiculously young team has grown up before our eyes, and for its latest trick it authored what is, as of this moment, the greatest victory by the Atlanta-based Hawks. I’m thinking these guys are way too hot to lose Game 6. Full disclosure, though: I thought the same in 1988 and, instead of chronicling a series clincher that Friday night, these fingers first typed the words they’ve typed many times since.

A running lefty hook, of all things.

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