You can believe in the Hawks again

Handout shirts #BELIEVEATLANTA cover the seats for fans in State Farm Arena for fourth playoff game between the Hawks and New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Handout shirts #BELIEVEATLANTA cover the seats for fans in State Farm Arena for fourth playoff game between the Hawks and New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The building looks a lot spiffier. The name is different. The noise was familiar, though.

It was the sound of Hawks supporters believing in their team in the NBA playoffs. I haven’t heard that in 10 years at State Farm Arena, the house formerly known as Philips. The fans are right to feel that way about these Hawks.

They beat the Knicks 113-96 on Sunday. They can end the best-of-seven Eastern Conference series on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where they’ve already won once.

“We are pretty confident we can win (there) again,” Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “We will not go there relaxed, for sure.”

The Knicks will have to win three games in a row to advance. They’ll need to win once at State Farm Arena. They lost Games 3 and 4 here by a combined margin of 33 points. NBA teams have a 13-244 series record after facing a 3-1 deficit.

Hawks fans cheer on the team during Game 4 of the NBA Playoff matchup against the New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won 113-96, taking a 3-1 lead in the series. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks fans cheer on the team during Game 4 of the NBA Playoff matchup against the New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won 113-96, taking a 3-1 lead in the series. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Knicks won’t be the latest to do it. The Hawks are just too good for them. Everyone sees it, including the Knicks. It’s been apparent for a while that the Hawks could coalesce into a good team with better health. It’s been astonishing to see how quickly they’ve become a machine that’s rolling over the Knicks.

John Collins has a unique perspective on that evolution. He’s been around longer than any Hawks player. He played in the building as it was being upgraded. Collins was part of three Hawks teams that won fewer than 30 games and played in front of plenty of sparse home crowds.

Now Collins is winning playoff games in a packed home arena.

“It was amazing for myself, being the longest-tenured,” Collins said. “It’s the first time the arena was filled on back-to-back nights. Having the fans come out and support us is big for us. It keeps our adrenaline and energy going.”

It was a fun scene. It took me back to May 8, 2011, at Philips Arena. The Hawks evened their second-round series with a victory over top-seeded Chicago that day. “A-T-L” chants rang out as the final horn sounded. There was a belief that the Hawks could advance to the East finals for the first time.

The Hawks made it there in 2015, but it was a slog. The season ended sourly with a sweep at the hand of LeBron James. There’s a different feeling with these Hawks. They also are a balanced, ball-sharing, 3-point shooting team. But, unlike in 2015, the Hawks also have a star who controls games and makes things happen.

Hawks guard Trae Young celebrates with forward John Collins after he hit a three-pointer adding to Atlanta's second-half lead against the New York Knicks during Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff matchup Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks beat the Knicks 113-96. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks guard Trae Young celebrates with forward John Collins after he hit a three-pointer adding to Atlanta's second-half lead against the New York Knicks during Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff matchup Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks beat the Knicks 113-96. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Trae Young is the main reason why the Hawks are so good. He’s why they are as exciting as they’ve been since Dominque Wilkins played at the Omni. It’s Young’s imaginative playmaking and unlimited shooting range. It’s the thrill of seeing a smaller man dash into the paint and drop the ball in the hoop over the outstretched arms of very long men.

Young had 27 points and nine assists in Game 4. His 3-point shot was off (4-for-14) but he made 5 of 7 two-pointers and all five free-throw attempts. Young’s playmaking was sharp again. He has 40 assists and 11 turnovers in the series.

“I always know in my mind where I want to go with the ball,” Young said. “It trips me out sometimes where it goes.”

The Knicks don’t have a clue how to stop it. Young finds ways to score and spreads the ball around to whichever Hawks shooters are hot. In Game 4 it was Collins, Boganovic and Kevin Huerter. They were a combined 9-for-17 on 3′s.

The Knicks got the kind of game they prefer at the start. The Hawks had more turnovers (five) than baskets (four) after through six-plus minutes. They came alive with an 8-0 run over 40 seconds in the second quarter to lead 51-44 with 2:22 until halftime.

The arena was rocking. The Knicks called timeout. The Hawks had a chance to bury the Knicks but couldn’t do it. That came after halftime.

The Knicks came out determined to make it harder for the Hawks to move the ball. They forced them to create chances in isolation. They were challenging nearly every shot. It didn’t matter. The Hawks scored on six of their first seven possessions.

The Hawks raced to a 68-54 lead. The Knicks couldn’t close the margin to less than seven points after that. Their deficit swelled to 26 points. One of the NBA’s best defensive teams had no chance to string together a series of stops.

Eventually, the Knicks looked as if they were sick of trying. What was the point? The visitors melted down near the end.

Reggie Bullock ran after Hawks forward Danillo Gallinari during a timeout. He apparently was angry about an elbow he took from Gallinari on a previous play. When play resumed, Knicks forward Julius Randle Gallinari put a forearm into Gallinari’s chest.

“That’s the normal reaction when you lose a game like that,” Gallinari said. “It’s to be expected and it’s OK. We are all competitors, and we hate to lose.”

That’s why the Hawks can expect more resistance from the Knicks in Game 5. New York won all three meetings during the regular season but has been overmatched for all but one half during the series. The Knicks surely will try to bully the Hawks in the Garden. The Hawks already know they can win there.

Hawks guard Bogan Bogdanovic (left) celebrates with forward Danilo Gallinari (right) after Gallinari slammed in a dunk for two points of 113-96 victory in Game 4 of first-round NBA playoff matchup against the New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Hawks guard Bogan Bogdanovic (left) celebrates with forward Danilo Gallinari (right) after Gallinari slammed in a dunk for two points of 113-96 victory in Game 4 of first-round NBA playoff matchup against the New York Knicks Sunday, May 30, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

It feels like 2011 for the Hawks. They vanquished the Magic in the first round of the playoffs that year. Orlando had embarrassed the Hawks a year earlier by setting a record for victory margin in a four-game sweep. Maybe things would be different under coach Larry Drew, Mike Woodson’s former assistant.

The Hawks provided more evidence of that with the Game 1 victory in Chicago. The Hawks lost Game 2 while putting up a good fight. Philips Arena was ready to erupt for Game 3, but the Bulls trounced the Hawks. (Knicks guard Derrick Rose, the MVP that season with the Bulls, went for 44 points).

The Hawks gave their fans the euphoria they sought in Game 4. The Hawks dominated the fourth quarter for a convincing victory. Josh Smith nearly posted a triple-double. I’d never seen Philips so frenzied.

The feeling didn’t last. The Bulls won the next three games. That Hawks era fizzled. Mike Budenholzer came in and took the Hawks a step further. In 2014-15 they won 60 games and advanced to the East finals.

Travis Schlenk took over as Hawks general manager in 2017 and began another rebuild. The Hawks are back in the playoffs after a three-year absence. They showed they are series by winning the Game 1 in New York.

Then the Hawks came back to State Farm Arena to trounce the Knicks twice. They’ve made their fans believe again.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News