A Team Built on Believe
How the Hawks Emerged as Contenders, and Where They're Headed
If there was an initial point at which fans could have believed that their team's deep roster would make good on a successful 2020-21 season, perhaps it was Dec. 30, 2020.
After scoring 33 points in a frenetic 145-141 Nets win over the Hawks in Brooklyn, Kevin Durant said of the feisty Hawks, "They have seven or eight starters on their team, I feel like."
Two nights later on the same floor in a new year, the Hawks put six scorers in double figures in a win over Brooklyn.
While the Hawks showed flashes in that back-to-back in Brooklyn, most of their success had to wait until later in the season. They did not look anything like a believable finished product until ending the season with a 27-11 record under then-interim head coach Nate McMillan.
Then it was time for Trae Young to go to Madison Square Garden for his first playoff game, just as he had for his first career NBA regular-season game. Trae had been a notoriously slow starter in the first games in new environments. In his first college game, he made 4 of 13 shots against Omaha. In Utah in his first NBA Summer League game, he shot 4 for 20 after excitedly missing his pregame nap. And in that first real NBA game, he made 5 of 14 shots in a loss to the Knicks at MSG.
So what could fans reasonably expect as Trae headed into his first NBA playoff game in the same spot? Would they believe that it would have included blowing past a double team into a game-winning floater to the howling disapproval of 15,000 Knicks fans?
Because that is what Trae did, and as much as it inspired Hawks fans to believe in their team, it may have done the same for a number of his young teammates experiencing the NBA playoffs for the first time.
After advancing to the second round, the Hawks faced a 26-point second-half deficit in Game 5 against a big Sixers team that posed a number of unusual matchups. Taxed by injuries to a number of wings, McMillan deployed a three-big lineup with John Collins, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari playing together.
The Hawks trailed by 18 points entering the fourth quarter. They won by 3 to take a 3-2 lead in a series that they eventually won in seven games.
Injuries to Trae Young and De'Andre Hunter and others derailed the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the deep playoff run gave their fans a number of reasons to believe in them.
As well-justified as that belief is, Nate McMillan puts equal stock in the aphorism that every team begins the season with a 0-0 record.
"We want to build off last year, but last year is last year. It's in the past. We did some good things then, but this is a new season. We've got to basically start all over in the sense of building that chemistry: the chemistry that we had, the connection that we had on both ends of the floor. It's a different season."
For John Collins, the approach is to work now and be flexible later.
"Being successful isn't always how you envision it," Collins said. "You just have to be ready for an array of different things to happen and not happen as you planned. That is the extra preparation that Coach (McMillan) is always stressing to us about always being prepared for any situation. I feel like that is how we can negate being too high or too low, but understanding that we put in the work. Now we just have to go out there and play our hardest."
Kevin Huerter, whose 27 points propelled the Hawks to a Game 7 win over Philadelphia, is ready to toe the line between confidence and overconfidence in the upcoming season.
"It's all in the work," Huerter said. "Our confidence is that we proved it once. We played against the best once and obviously won a lot of games but didn't get to where we needed to be. The rest is in the work and where we want to get next."
A new season awaits. The Hawks hope that good health and the additions of solid two-way players like Delon Wright and Gorgui Dieng makes them the deepest team in the league and a playoff contender with believable title aspirations.