We around here have seen so many playoff series start well only to go south that we know our teams are never so vulnerable as when they seem invincible. The Braves led the Yankees 2-0 in 1996 and haven’t won a World Series game since. The Hawks had 3-2 leads on the hated Celtics in 1988 and the top-seeded Pacers in 2014. Alas, Cliff Levingston tried a running lefty hook, and Lou Williams passed when he should’ve shot. We’re Atlanta. These things happen, especially to us.

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Reality suggests that these Hawks have the Knicks on the run. The New Yorkers haven’t held a halftime lead. Their two best players, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, have managed 78 points over three games; the Hawks’ Trae Young has 83 by himself. In Friday’s Game 3, the Knicks made 29 baskets over 48 minutes; the Hawks made 40.

The Knicks tried different things in Friday’s Game 3. Elfrid Payton was reduced from starting guard to non-participant. The Knicks tried blitzing Young – running a second defender at him to make him relinquish the ball – with even worse results. Young had 14 assists. The other Hawks made 14 of 21 3-point shots. Game 4 comes Sunday. There mightn’t be much left to try.

If the Knicks lose Game 4, they’ll face triple match point. NBA teams have escaped from 3-1 holes to win – Denver did it twice at Disney last year – but it has happened only 13 times in league annals. (It happened in MLB last fall. The Dodgers won the National League Championship Series after trailing 3-1. Can’t seem to recall the name of their opponent.)

This is the first time since 2017 the Hawks have graced the playoffs. This is new to them. They might not know what former coach Emile Francis – of the NHL’s Rangers, we note – told Larry Merchant of the New York Post long ago: “The odd(-numbered) game is a crucial game, and the even game is a must game.”

We stipulate that any Game 7 is an entity unto itself, and seven is an odd number. That said, the Francis formula holds. Game 2 in this series was immense for the Knicks, and they won it. Game 4 is a leviathan for both sides. If the Hawks win, the Knicks are in elimination mode. If the Knicks win, the series resets – and they’ll have reclaimed the home-court edge.

Over these three games, we’ve seen how gifted and deep these Hawks are. They seem the better team, and not by a little. But will this youngish crew commit the youthful transgression of believing that talent will be enough?

One of the many fine things about Nate McMillan is that he was an NBA player for 12 seasons before he became a head coach. He knows what traps await youngish players because he was one.

Hawks coach Nate McMillan shouts instruction during the second half in Game 3. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Hawks coach Nate McMillan shouts instruction during the second half in Game 3. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Speaking Saturday, McMillan said: “We talk about things like that (mindset management). We have our veterans talk to the team about where we are. I really try to prepare the team for where they are and what they need to do in the game that’s coming up.”

When you’re up 2-1 and the second victory came much easier than the first, it’s human nature to look ahead. If the Hawks take Round 1, they’ll surely face Philadelphia, the East’s No. 1 seed. But you can’t start worrying about Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons before you dispose of Randle and Barrett.

Said McMillan: “We’re really just trying to look toward tomorrow’s game and not get too far ahead here.”

Then: “This is something we’ve worked on with this team – being calm, really for 48 minutes. Always refocus and get back to being clear about what you need to do out on the floor and staying connected. It’s something we talk about every day and before every game.”

Through three games, the Hawks have looked rattled only for the five minutes and 46 seconds bridging the third and four quarters when Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic were sitting. In Game 3, McMillan made sure that one of the two always was on the court. Result: A 12-point victory, as opposed to a wasted 15-point lead. That’s the kind of flexibility a playoff coach must have. You can’t wait to fix what didn’t work.

The Hawks have reason to believe they’re the superior team in this series. The Knicks are fortunate not to be down 3-0. But they’ll try to ugly it up and outfight the Hawks in Game 4, and if they’re successful they’ll be buoyed by the knowledge that games 5 and 7 would be staged in Madison Square Garden. The Hawks’ mission is to ensure there’s not a Game 7. If they prevail Sunday, there won’t be.

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