Kevin Huerter, unlikely Game 7 star, saves the Hawks

Hawks guard Kevin Huerter hits a three-pointer against 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 guard Kevin Huerter hits a three-pointer against 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@

Trae Young is the franchise star. Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter are the high draft picks meant to be his main running mates. Kevin Huerter is ... The Other Guy.

Or that’s what Huerter was for the Hawks. In the biggest moment of his professional career, Huerter was The Man.

The Hawks are going to the Eastern Conference finals because Huerter saved them when they desperately needed someone to score. The role player was a star as the Hawks won Game 7 of the semifinal at Philadelphia Sunday night.

“He was really the deciding factor is this game, clearly,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said.

Think about that.

This Game 7 featured Young, whose fine performance this postseason has bolstered his credentials one of the best young players in the game. The Sixers have Joel Embiid, second in the latest MVP voting, and fellow former No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons. None of those guys decided Game 7 of East semifinal.

Instead, it was Huerter who carried the Hawks to the 103-96 victory. Young couldn’t make a shot (he’s got a sore right shoulder). Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, usually the No. 2 scorer, was slowed by a right knee. The Hawks went to Huerter and he gave them exactly what they needed.

Huerter scored a team-high 27 points to Young’s 21. He made 10 of 18 shots while Young missed 18 of 23. At winning time, Young was missing step back 3-pointers and losing the ball out of bounds. Huerter was scoring over smaller defenders, making clutch free throws and tapping a pass ahead to Danilo Gallinari for a breakaway dunk that put away the Sixers.

“It’s that confidence he’s playing with now,” Hawks forward John Collins said. “We’ve all seen his skillset he possesses and how he plays the game, mentally and cerebrally. But it’s really about confidence for Kev. It’s grown.”

It’s happened at the perfect time for the Hawks. Huerter couldn’t crack coach Nate McMillan’s starting lineup for the first three games of the series. Solomon Hill got the call once Hunter (knee) was ruled out. McMillan eventually put Huerter in the lineup because he was looking for more shooting.

Huerter was 4-for-10 shooting in Game 4 and 0-for-7 in Game 5. The Hawks won both games. Huerter scored 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting in Game 6 at State Farm Arena. The Hawks lost. His 27 points in Game 7 came along with seven rebounds, three assists and tight defense in the clutch against Seth Curry, Philadelphia’s sharpshooter.

Hawks guards Kevin Huerter (left), Trae Young (center), and forward John Collins celebrate the 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 guards Kevin Huerter (left), Trae Young (center), and forward John Collins celebrate the 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@

“With guys going out, we are definitely telling him to be more aggressive and score the ball a little bit more,” Young said. “Play free, relax, and just have fun. He did it tonight.”

It was evident from the start. Huerter made his first four shots. He converted an open 3-pointer on a pass from Collins. Huerter came off a Clint Capela screen to make a pull-up jumper. He shook free for another pull-up jumper, then made a running shot in the lane.

Huerter had 12 points at halftime. The Hawks led by two points despite Young missing 11 of 12 shots. They had a plus-nine margin with Huerter on the floor. Huerter has tended to start strong and fade later. He said Gallinari told him at halftime: “‘Just keep shooting. We need you to stay aggressive.’ ”

That’s what Huerter did. He took five shots in the fourth quarter, most among Hawks players, and made three. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter and made some of those cerebral plays Collins mentioned.

The Hawks led 93-89 when Young lost control of the ball for a turnover. Huerter quickly fouled Simmons near halfcourt. That was a smart play because Simmons was clearly shaken by his struggles shooting the ball. He hardly looked at the rim all night - Simmons passed up a wide open dunk late in the game - and he didn’t want anything to do with free throws.

Simmons made one of two attempts to cut Philadelphia’s deficit to 93-90 with less than two minutes to play. Sixers forward Tobias Harris scored at the basket to make it 93-92 with one minute to go. The Hawks urgently needed a score.

Huerter delivered by drawing a shooting foul against Matisse Thybulle on a 3-point try. Huerter sidestepped into space and shot the ball as Thybulle hit him across the head. Huerter made all three free throws for a 96-92 lead with 54 seconds left.

The Sixers set up Embiid for a drive to the basket. Gallinari knocked the ball away from Embiid as he tried a spin move. The ball went to Huerter, who passed ahead to Gallinari.

Maybe this will be the thing that elevates Huerter from decent bench player to something more. He was the No. 19 overall daft pick in 2018, the same year Young was selected fifth. Teams are happy to find an average starter that late in the draft. Huerter has shown flashes of becoming that but the consistency has been lacking.

Huerter has always been a good 3-pointer shooter. He made nearly 39% of his tries as a rookie. But he’d have stretches where he hesitated to take open looks. Then Huerter’s accuracy declined, too.

Huerter has always been good at slithering closer to the basket and raising up for clean, midrange looks. But he would miss too many of those shots. Huerter’s offensive efficiency has been below-average in a league where good wings are scorers.

At the other end, Huerter opposing wings could push Huerter toward the rim and score over him. He had the length and smarts to be a good defender. He didn’t always have the tenacity.

But Huerter had it all in Game 7 against the Sixers. He took open 3-pointers shots and made 2 of 4. Huerter bullied Curry and George Hill to the basket and scored over them or got fouled. In the fourth quarter Huerter stuck to Curry, who took and made just one 3-pointer in the period.

The Other Guy in the Hawks’ rebuilding plan was The Man when they needed him.

Said Huerter: “It’s been a great three years. Hopefully, the ride is just starting.”

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