You shouldn’t bet against these ‘house money’ Hawks

Hawks forward John Collins battles for a rebound against Philadelphia 76ers center Dwight Howard and guard George Hill in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks forward John Collins battles for a rebound against Philadelphia 76ers center Dwight Howard and guard George Hill in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

They were two regular-season games, and nothing on the sports calendar carries less currency than NBA regular-season games. (If you’re a star, a regular-season game is less essential than “load maintenance,” which means skipping it altogether.) The first was on an April Friday against Miami, which reached the 2020 NBA finals in the Disney bubble.

The Hawks were without Trae Young and Clint Capela, their best players. They outscored the Heat 56-42 after halftime. They won by 15. They had a clear path to finishing atop the NBA Southeast, which meant they wouldn’t slide into the goofy play-in tournament. Two nights later, they faced Milwaukee, the Eastern Conference’s best team over the past three regular seasons. Young was still out. The Hawks trailed by eight after three quarters. They won by seven. And here you thought, “Hmmm.”

No gambler has ever gone broke betting against the Hawks come playoff time, and no observer — none of us media types, either — had a grasp on what these players might become when the NBA got serious. As Kevin Huerter, the shooting star of Game 7 in Philly, said late Sunday night: “We thought when we got all our guys together, we were pretty good.”

The Hawks still don’t have all their guys — De’Andre Hunter underwent knee surgery; Cam Reddish hasn’t played since March — but they’ve become maybe the happiest team we Atlantans have ever seen. The Hawks are gracing the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in their history. The first came in 2015. That team had been the East’s best since December of 2014. (Remember when the five starters were all named players of the month?) We knew that bunch was good, at least until it ran afoul of LeBron in Round 3.

As for this team … well, we had no idea. Four of the starting five for Game 1 in Madison Square Garden were working their first postseason games. Young won it with a floater with 0.9 seconds left. Score one for playoff inexperience.

As of March 1, the Hawks were a rebuilding team that looked barely rebuilt. They were 14-20, holders of 11th place in the 15-team East. A series of blown leads had eroded whatever faith these guys had left in coach Lloyd Pierce, who was fired on a Monday after a loss in Miami. The day after the Hawks tapped Nate McMillan as interim coach, the Hawks — still in Miami — won by outscoring the Heat 31-14 in the fourth quarter. They would win their next seven games. Score one for the new-coach bounce.

It was more than a bounce, though. It was a transfiguration. The Hawks are 35-15 under Nate the Great. That’s a winning percentage of .700. In their Atlanta existence, only once – in 2014-2015 – have the Hawks played .700 ball over a full season, and that team went 8-8 in the playoffs. These Hawks are 8-4. They’re 5-2 in road games, which is crazy. A year ago, this team didn’t qualify for the bubble. Today it’s among the NBA’s final four. Even crazier.

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan helps rally his team to a 103-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan helps rally his team to a 103-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Though really not. The Knicks never seemed the better team in Round 1. The 76ers peaked in Game 3 of Round 2, after which the Hawks overrode deficits of 18 points in Game 4 and 26 in Game 5. In Game 7, the biggest lead the No. 1 seed could manage — playing at home, we emphasize — was four points, which the regrettable Dwight Howard essentially gave back with a flagrant foul.

If you hadn’t known which team was new to the playoffs, you’d never have guessed by watching. The Sixers spent the final four games in the throes of a nervous breakdown. (How they won Game 6 remains a mystery.) By then, the Hawks knew they were the better team. They had no fear of returning to Philly because they had no fear of the team that works there. If there’s a word to characterize this stunning run, it’s the one McMillan pinned on Young — “fearless.”

Where Trae goes, his teammates follow. Sometimes you wonder why Young keeps launching 30-footers, but then you realize it’s part of his no-brakes method. He’ll try anything. If he makes enough of those shots, no defender can back off. When that happens he flits merrily past, the result being a floater or a lob. He’s the smartest 22-year-old this rather older correspondent has ever seen.

In February, this seemed a gaggle of misfit parts. Today it’s a team in the truest sense. Young is the leader, but you can see his savvy in Huerter and John Collins and the whole dang crew. McMillan said after Game 7 he was struck by how calm he was on the sideline. When you trust your players — and they’re worthy of that trust — you’re ahead of the game. The Sixers had a zillion panic moments over the final four games. The Hawks had none.

After Game 7, Huerter used the phrase he’d voiced after Game 6 – “house money.” Maybe the Hawks are relaxed because they’ve gone so much further than anyone, themselves included, could have imagined. Maybe they’re relaxed because they’ve discovered how good they can be. If in doubt, they need only look to Young, who always thinks of something.

The Hawks could crash against Milwaukee, though I doubt it. If you can outlast Joel Embiid over seven games, you won’t tremble at the approach of Giannis Antetokounmpo. They believe they can beat anybody, and lately they haven’t been wrong. Hawks in six.

Hawks-Bucks

Game 1, Wednesday, June 23: Hawks at Bucks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 2, Friday, June 25: Hawks at Bucks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 3, Sunday, June 27: Bucks at Hawks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 4, Tuesday, June 29: Bucks at Hawks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 5*, Thursday, July 1: Hawks at Bucks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 6*, Saturday, July 3: Bucks at Hawks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 7*, Monday, July 5: Hawks at Bucks, 8:30 p.m., TNT

* — If necessary

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