By Avner Belsky
ATLANTA — Everyone loves a good underdog story. They love seeing the unexpected suddenly happen right before their eyes. You are witnessing not only Atlanta history, but NBA history. The Atlanta Hawks, who just a year ago couldn’t even imagine making the playoffs, have made a strong postseason push that has landed them a coveted spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Atlanta Hawks finished the regular season 41-31, which was good enough to guarantee them a spot in the playoffs as the 5th seed. Going into their first playoff series since 2015 they were already the underdogs and faced the fourth-seeded New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.
The Hawks had no problem moving past New York, pulling off a 4-1 “Gentleman’s sweep.”
In the next round, the Hawks faced Joel Emiid’s 76ers. Going into that series it was looking like the Hawks playoff “luck” had just about run out.
Hawks star Trae Young had something else to say about that.
Throughout that series, he averaged 29 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 10.9 assists.
More importantly, Young’s play led the Hawks to a series victory over Philadelphia and on to the Eastern Conference finals.
“Trae’s scoring ability has put him in the national spotlight considering the platform of his achievements beating the New York Knicks in a hostile environment and the improbable upset of Philadelphia,” said Ronald Agers who covers the Hawks for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network along with being a SLAM magazine contributing writer.
Agers added, “The leadership and overall play of Ice Trae leads directly to interim head coach Nate McMillan. Ever since he took over for the (fired) Lloyd Pierce, he attached accountability to Young that might not have been there his first couple of years. Trae looked like the second hand version of Stephen Curry shooting numerous 30 foot shots a game.”
Even with Young’s individual success, the Hawks have shown to be more than just a one-man show.
Without Young in the lineup, the Hawks have still proven to be a formidable opponent. Young suffered a right ankle injury in Game 3 which kept him out of the lineup for Game 4. Atlanta responded with a series-tying victory despite not having their best player available.
“The Hawks have been underdogs in both series so far and now are big underdogs (against) Milwaukee,” said Hawks co-owner Jesse Itzler. “That hasn’t bothered anyone so far and in fact, I think fires this team up. We have a lot to prove. I hope this team serves as an inspiration to underdogs all over the world.”
The city of Atlanta was demanding a change and better results.
That is exactly what happened, after the firing of Pierce. They promoted Hawks assistant Nate McMillan, a veteran NBA head coach, to interim head coach. Since becoming the Hawks’ interim head coach, Atlanta has a 27-11 record which ranks among the league’s best during that span.
“(McMillan) has done a great job of letting players play and letting his leaders lead,” said Curtis Washington who played at Georgia State and now plays overseas. “He gives them the game plan and then lets them play their game without over coaching.”
There is a lot to be said about that coaching style. The NBA has tons of coaches across the league trying to over coach and make up complicated game plans and plays. McMillan has found that perfect balance between structure and letting his players do what they do best and what they are paid to do – Win.
And they do this as a team which has become one of their strengths and a key to their unexpected success.
“One thing you see in the Atlanta Hawks is the power of teamwork,” Itzler said. “This is a team that is unselfish and supportive of each other. When everyone is playing together rather than individually … amazing things can happen. Trae is a great example of that. It’s amazing what a team playing together can accomplish. You can never underestimate soul and heart. We play with both.”
(Also published in Boston University’s paper “The Terrier”)