Under McMillan, the Hawks haven’t just gotten better. They’ve gotten pretty darn good. They’re among the NBA’s 10 best offensive teams. They’re no longer a swinging gate on defense. They have a terrific big man. They have a ridiculously talented point guard. Even without Cam Reddish, they have a deep bench. The Knicks pride themselves on stopping opponents; they’ll have a tough time stopping the Hawks over a best-of-seven.
“I want to do something special,” said Trae Young, the point guard, speaking Friday. “I’ve said that since I’ve gotten here. I want to be different. This is going to be a fun opportunity and a fun stage.”
As McMillan noted earlier in the week, people tend to notice the Knicks. (The NBA docked him $25,000 for his observation. On Friday, he said his comments “were taken out of context,” which might actually be true.) If the Hawks make this series, people will notice them, too. There’s no reason they shouldn’t make this a series.
Before he became Georgia Tech’s coach, Paul Hewitt, then of Siena, offered the best explanation of playoff-level basketball I’ve heard. (He was speaking of the NCAA Tournament, but it applies to the NBA postseason.) Everybody plays defense in the playoffs, Hewitt said, because everybody’s equally desperate. Who wins is a function of who can make the most baskets. In this series, there’s no question as to which team that is. The Knicks have two players who average 15 points or better; the Hawks have five.
The Hawks last made the playoffs in 2017. Unless something goes way wrong, this should be the first of many postseason runs. They’re young, but they’re not without seasoning. They’re hungry because they believe they’ve been ignored, which is largely true. Since the glory days of Dominique Wilkins, the Atlanta audience has been slow to warm to this team. The Boston series of 2008 reintroduced a city to its NBA franchise. The Knicks series of 2021 could do the same.