Hawks dominated Knicks, but still have another level for 76ers

New York Knicks center Taj Gibson, left, and Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) fight for a loose ball during the third quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)
New York Knicks center Taj Gibson, left, and Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) fight for a loose ball during the third quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

After the Hawks made quick work of the Knicks in the NBA playoffs, they were torn between their elation and their ambitions.

ExploreHawks' Trae Young proves he is fearless in playoffs

Yes, the Hawks were happy to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The franchise hasn’t done that since 2016. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.

No, the Hawks aren’t satisfied. They were slightly favored to beat the Knicks and ended the best-of-seven series in five. That doesn’t have to be their ceiling.

“Like I’ve been saying all year, we’ve got a squad that can surprise a lot of people,” Trae Young said after the Hawks won Game 5 in New York. “But we are not going to surprise ourselves because we know what we are capable of.”

No one should be surprised by the Hawks anymore. I was confident they’d beat the Knicks, though I didn’t know they’d dominate them. The only way the Hawks could shock me is by winning the next two rounds and advancing to the NBA Finals. They are coming after Philadelphia, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, starting Sunday.

The Hawks have another level they can reach. Against the Knicks, they missed a lot of open 3-point tries and didn’t get to the free-throw line much. They did both things well during the season. Do them better against the 76ers, while playing defense like they did against the Knicks, and the Hawks will have a good chance of advancing to the East finals.

The Sixers are in trouble if league MVP candidate Joel Embiid (knee) misses any games. The Hawks will be a tough out even if Embiid is healthy. The Sixers are worthy favorites to win the series. But the Hawks were the lower seed against the Knicks, and at no point did it seem like that way.

The Hawks won Game 1 in New York on Young’s last-second shot, faded to a loss in Game 2 and then won three consecutive games by double-digit margins. They won twice at Madison Square Garden. Citizens of the claimed basketball capital of the world were hungry to see the Knicks back in the playoffs after seven years. In the closing moments of Game 5 those fans were cheering in appreciation for a good season that ended with a thud against a clearly superior foe.

The Hawks made good on center Clint Capela’s promise that they would win Game 5 and send the Knicks on vacation.

“This is why I was always believing in this group,” Capela said after Game 5. “This is not random.”

The Hawks are on a roll. But it’s not quite right to say they are hot. That implies the Hawks were underachieving before unlocking their true potential. It’s more accurate to say it wasn’t clear how good these Hawks could be because of circumstances.

The Hawks had more games lost to injury by important players this season than nearly any team in the league. They changed coaches March 1, from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan. The Hawks had little time to develop cohesion during the frenzied pace of a 72-game season squeezed into a little more than 21 weeks.

The Hawks stayed afloat, got healthier and then surged to finish fourth in the East. The playoffs were a different test. Capela is the only Hawks starter who’d been there before. Three starters are 23 years old or younger.

Once the series started, the Hawks immediately showed they are ready. They didn’t let up until they dismissed the Knicks, who tried and failed to fluster them.

“I saw a lot of focus,” Young said. “I saw a lot of determination. I saw guys really focused in on our mission.”

Young stepped forward in his first NBA postseason as Julius Randle, voted the league’s Most Improved Player, retreated in his playoffs debut. Randle couldn’t handle the intensity of a focused defensive effort against him. Young is accustomed to defeating schemes meant to stop him, and the heightened passions of the playoffs made him only better.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Young averaged 30 points, 9.8 assists and just three turnovers during the series. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Young joined Michael Jordan as the only players to score 30 or more points in three consecutive playoff games at MSG. Young’s impressive postseason debut is reminiscent of some of the game’s legends: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, LeBron James, David Robinson.

“I think he’s built for this time of the season,” McMillan said of Young. “He’s just fearless out there. He’s very confident in what he brings to the floor.”

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk placed the right pieces around Young this season. He needed to do it so his best player could shed the burden of starring for losing teams. Young flourishes when he’s having fun on the floor. There were few good times during his first two NBA seasons.

Schlenk started trying to change that when he traded for Capela at last year’s deadline. Since then, he’s added five more veteran players with salaries higher than the league minimum. Four of them played key roles against the Knicks. The new veterans have meshed wonderfully with Young and three other Schlenk draft picks: De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Kevin Huerter.

It will be harder for the Hawks against the Sixers. Embiid was on the court warming up before Philadelphia eliminated the Wizards on Wednesday, a sign that he could be ready by Sunday. Embiid is a more skilled big man than Randle, and the Sixers have better talent around him, including bruising point guard Ben Simmons.

We’ll see how it goes for the Hawks starting Sunday in Philadelphia. Until then, let’s appreciate what they’ve already done.

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