The rise of Trae and the Hawks is getting historic, folks

Hawks guard Trae Young drives past Milwaukee Bucks defender Giannis Antetokounmpo on his way to the basket during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks guard Trae Young drives past Milwaukee Bucks defender Giannis Antetokounmpo on his way to the basket during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20. On June 23, they won Game 1 of a third consecutive playoff series ON THE ROAD. In this team’s Atlanta manifestation, it had seen a third playoff series in a single year only once – in 2015, when Mike Budenholzer’s team lost Game 1 of the Eastern finals at home and every game thereafter. Adding to the weirdness, these Hawks lead Bud’s latest team 1-nil.

These Hawks are one of three teams to reach the conference finals after being sub-.500 at the All-Star break. The other two were the 2011-12 Celtics – how were the Celtics ever under .500? – and the 1983-84 Suns. Neither won Game 1 of the conference finals on the road. Neither advanced to the NBA Finals. The Hawks have managed the first and look more than capable of doing the second.

So what I’m trying to say – for the 700th time in a month, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to succeeding – is that we’re witnessing something historic. Not just for the Hawks, whose playoff performances pre-Trae were, in the main, pedestrian. For ANY TEAM EVER. (Apologies for shouting again.)

I’m old enough to recall when the NBA had no conferences, just an East and West division; old enough to remember when CBS aired the NBA Finals on tape delay at 11:30 p.m.; old enough to have seen Nate McMillan work alongside Spud Webb in Jim Valvano’s N.C. State backcourt. I’ve seen some stuff. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m not sure anybody has.

I recall only one team that started horrendously and then, without having to stop on “good,” went from “bad” to “great.” (These Hawks are 36-15 under McMillan. They’re 9-4 in the playoffs against three higher seeds; they’re 6-2 on the road. That qualifies as “great.”) That was the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics, whose rise came so long ago that McMillan, now known as Mr. Sonic for his distinguished work as player and coach, was 14.

Those Sonics were 5-17 under Bob Hopkins. He was replaced by Lenny Wilkens, who changed four of Hoskins’ five starters, the only constant being center Marvin Webster. (Yes, Hopkins was deploying Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma in reserve, which is how you get to be 5-17.) They were 42-18 under Wilkens. They made the NBA Finals, where they led Washington 3-2. They lost an excruciating Game 7. Then Webster signed with the Knicks. The next season, Lenny’s crew won it all. (Fifteen years later, Wilkens would coach the Hawks.)

For antecedents, that’s all I’ve got. Those Sonics happened when almost nobody watched the NBA. Then Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived – Michael Jordan had just been cut from his high school varsity – and the world changed.

ESPN reports that only three other teams – the Knicks in 1999, the Bulls in 1989 and the Rockets in 1981 – won three Game 1s on the opponent’s floor. “We’ve built ourselves to be able to play on the road,” McMillan said Wednesday, which made you think, “So where was this when Lloyd Pierce was looking clueless?” To which you then thought, “Who cares?”

Hawks Trae Young and John Collins celebrate beating the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks Trae Young and John Collins celebrate beating the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

More from Nate the Great: “All NBA teams have a lot of talent. When you’ve got a team that’s committed to each other, playing the game the right way, playing the game for each other, playing the game to win – you’ve got something special there.”

We say again: There’s more to these Hawks than Trae Young, but none of this happens without Trae Young. In March, he didn’t make the All-Star team as a reserve. As of this moment, who’s better than Ice Trae? The Hawks just dismissed Joel Embiid, second in the MVP voting. They’re facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, twice an MVP. Kevin Durant and James Harden have been eliminated. So has LeBron James. So has, ahem, Luka Doncic.

Before Game 1, conventional wisdom held that the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday, named to the NBA’s all-defensive team, would guard Young in a way he hadn’t been guarded. Had Holiday fared any worse, Young would have gotten 60. As it was, he settled for 48 points and 11 assists. He owned this game, same as he has owned this month.

Afterward, McMillan revealed that Young calls most of the Hawks’ offensive sets, which is a lot to cast on those slender shoulders. Young loves it, saying: “He tells me that he believes, if it’s a couple of possessions (left) in a game, I can win anything.”

The greatest moment of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals – it might be the greatest moment in the history of basketball – came when the bumfuzzled Bucks chose not to guard Young. You’ve seen it a dozen times already: Young pulls away from Holiday and teammate John Collins, in the vicinity to set a pick that wasn’t needed. A step outside the 3-point arc, Young stops his dribble. And everyone just … stands there.

Watching, your thought was that a whistle had blown. None had. The Bucks simply didn’t know what to do. Young was amused enough – Kawhi Leonard plays with a scowl; Trae operates with a smile and a wink – that he waited to see if a Buck would deign to approach. Then he gave a shoulder shimmy. Then, as Bobby Portis finally moved toward him, Young flipped the ball through the hoop.

“I had a lot of time,” Young said, straight-faced. “I was kind of tired, so I had a little second to get a deep breath.”

Said Kevin Huerter, great again Wednesday: “I thought the same thing you guys did. ‘Did he really just do that?’”

That has been the story of these playoffs: Did Trae really do that? (Answer: yes.) Are the Hawks really doing this? (Answer: yes.) Maybe the Bucks will find a way to halt this onrushing train, but the Knicks and the Sixers didn’t.

Said Young: “I’m not really surprised, ever.”

He’s Trae Young. He can win anything. His team might win everything.

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