The Hawks have a chance to make the world notice them

Trae Young (11) reacts after the win over the Washington Wizards in an NBA basketball game Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Atlanta. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Washington Wizards 120-116.
Trae Young (11) reacts after the win over the Washington Wizards in an NBA basketball game Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Atlanta. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Washington Wizards 120-116.

Credit: AP Photo/Butch Dill

Credit: AP Photo/Butch Dill

When last the Hawks broke a playoff drought, they had gone seven seasons and four coaches without partaking of the postseason. That rebuild was launched by Billy Knight. It lasted long enough for him to draft two guys named Josh in Round 1 of the 2004 draft and spend Round 1 picks the next two years on guys named Williams. It lasted long enough for the Hawks’ owners – the never-to-be-forgotten Atlanta Spirit – to wind up in court, the legal kind, over Joe Johnson.

When the Hawks did slip into the playoffs, they weren’t especially good. They went 37-45 and were outscored by 149 points over the 2007-08 season. They were the East’s No. 8 seed because someone had to be. They faced the 66-win Celtics in Round 1. Consensus held that the Hawks would do well to win a game. After they lost Games 1 and 2 by an aggregate 42 points, they would have been happy to eke out a halftime lead.

But they won Game 3 and, surprising themselves, Game 4 as well. Game 5 saw them back in Boston. They lost by 25. The series figured to end on a Friday night in Philips Arena. It didn’t. The raucous Game 6 stood – and might still stand – as the Hawks’ most stirring victory of the 21st century. That was the night Zaza Pachulia squared off against the glowering Kevin Garnett. That was the night Atlanta remembered it had a basketball team.

The Hawks lost Game 7 by 34 points, but they emerged from that spring as a different entity. They had begun to believe, and we’d begun to care. Their mostly young core was hitting its collective stride. (Except for Josh Childress, who split to play in Greece.) A much different team – Al Horford was the lone holdover – assembled by Danny Ferry and coached by Mike Budenholzer went 60-22 in 2014-15. The Hawks reached the postseason 10 years running, their most prolonged period of success moving here from St. Louis.

Then they got bad again on purpose. Travis Schlenk’s reset required 3½ seasons and one coaching change to reach fruition. Since Nate McMillan took over March 1, his team is 27-11. It will open the playoffs Sunday in Madison Square Garden. It would be no great shock if this No. 5 seed prevailed over this No. 4. It would’ve taken a miracle for the Hawks to win Game 7 in Boston on May 4, 2008. Beating the Knicks in Round 1 mightn’t even qualify as an upset.

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.

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