Five Reasons the Hawks Won Their First-Round Series

Breaking down the Hawks postseason performance in the First Round.

KL Chouinard @KLChouinard

5) Trae stayed focused through an avalanche of potential distractions.

In Game 5, Trae Young had an eventful final minute in both the first and second halves. Much will be made of the showmanly devastation he wreaked on Madison Square Garden late in the fourth. With the game squarely in hand, Trae swished a step-back 31-footer before calmly bending at the waist to take a deep, Broadway bow.

"I know where we are," he said afterward. "I know it's a bunch of shows in this city, and I know what they do when the show is over."

As perfectly theatrical as that ending was, Trae might not get there without the way he handled the end of the first half. As the final seconds ticked away, Trae drove into floater range where he took a forearm push in the back from one large Knick and went careening chest-first into the knees of another large Knick. The floater bounced off. Seconds later, as Trae left for halftime, a third large Knick tried to walk through Trae's shoulder, a jock-bumps-nerd-in-the-school-corridor sort of collision.

Trae dismissed it with a Kobe-cool shrug and kept on moving.

That was the moment that proved it. No distraction was going to work. No profane chant, no heckling fan, no repulsive spitter, no body blow after the whistle, no sideline fracas – nothing,nothing –was going to shake Trae from his objective of playing the best basketball of his life on the biggest stage that he has seen thus far in his career.

"I saw a lot of focus," Trae said of his teammates afterward. "I saw a lot of determination. I saw a lot of guys locked in and focused on our mission."

A team takes its cues from its leader. Trae led.

"Trae loves to use that negative energy and use it as fuel for him," John Collins said afterward. "Whatever fans want to keep antagonizing that man, please go right ahead. It's not going to bother him, and we've got his back as well."

4) The Hawks had two of the three best defenders in the series. 

The effect that Taj Gibson had on the series was undeniable. His physical box outs, timely rotations and quick hands all had an impact in ways that don't show up in the box score.

On the flip side, the Hawks had twice as much fun with De'Andre Hunter and Clint Capela. Capela was the key to limiting Julius Randle even though he wasn't even guarding him. How? With Gibson and Nerlens Noel not spacing the floor – they had 0 combined three-point attempts in the series – Capela lingered near the paint and protected the rim while one of John Collins, De'Andre Hunter or Danilo Gallinari guarded Randle directly. Those three were at liberty to take an assertive approach, knowing that they had Capela as a security blanket waiting behind them. Capela made the most of that arrangement, blocking 2.2 shots per game and altering countless others. 

Hunter was the queen of the chess board, the most versatile defensive piece. At times, he guarded every position from point guard to center and did it well. When the Hawks struggled to contain Derrick Rose, that job was given to him. Rose just scored 6 points in Game 5 after nagging the Hawks in all of the previous games. 

Hunter's defense at the point of attack on Randle was clean, too. He was too quick to get blown by, too strong to get overwhelmed by physical contact, and he did an excellent job forcing the left-handed Randle into situations where he couldn't use his dominant hand.

"He really did a solid job of making (Randle and Rose) work," Head Coach Nate McMillsan said, "keeping them in front and not giving them anything easy. It really started with him."

3) The Hawks found their physical side.

The Knicks made it clear in Game 2 that it was to their advantage to make the series a physical one. 

The Hawks responded in kind in Games 3 and 4 without losing their own skilled identity. Capela and Collins contested shots, but stayed out of foul trouble. The whole team boxed out and hit the glass, and the point-of-attack defenders fought over some big screens without getting knocked out of the play. Then Clint Capela called out the Knicks for Tuesday and absolutely laid down the gauntlet in advance of Game 5.

"We can be physical, but we can win games as well," he said. "And now we're coming to your home to win this game again. We'll send you on vacation."

The Hawks backed it up with a win to close out the physical series and showed that they had figured out how to play within that postseason paradigm.

2) The Hawks had the triple threats.

Trae and Derrick Rose both did outstanding jobs leading their respective offenses from the point guard position. But the best offenses have multi-skilled creators on the floor at other positions, too. 

One term that kids hear when they're learning about basketball is the triple-threat position. In the moment after they catch the ball before taking a dribble, they have the option to pass, dribble or shoot. In this series, the Hawks had the better triple threats. Alec Burks played a nice series for New York, and R.J. Barrett is going to be doing this sort of thing for at least another decade in the NBA, but Kevin Huerter shot 45.5 percent from three, and Bogdan Bogdanovic was the best shooting guard in the series. He tied with Trae for the series lead in threes made (14). Both he and Huerter repeatedly made the right play off the dribble when the situation called for it.

In future playoff series, teams may send more bodies at Trae than the Knicks did, because they want to get the ball out of his hands. When they do, this depth of playmaking is going to be even more valuable. 

1) Trae performed at a convincingly elite level. 

After Game 4, Bogdanovic expressed some thoughts about the Hawks' season and postseason in a much larger context.

“I’m going to tell you the truth: When we all came here, we knew this was a team that was a rebuilding team, but the players they brought this year, and the way that free agency was for Atlanta, and the way they were treating the guys who were here before, they showed they wanted to win this year and upcoming years. It’s not about this year only. They wanted to build something here that is going to stay for a long time. It's not about this season, this game, this month. It's not about that. It's about the long term. They really showed that every single time. This is one of the greatest organizations I've ever been on. I’m proud to be a part of it for real.”

To put it another way: It would have been easy enough for fans to get caught up in the smaller questions in a series like this one against the Knicks. What sorts of lineups should the Hawks use when Trae sits? Who should guard Randle? Was rookie Onyeka Okongwu experienced enough to hang with veteran opponents for a few minutes each half? Should the bench lineups try a zone defense?

While there were all reasonable questions to ask, there was a much easier one that lined up with Bogdanovic's way of thinking: Can your team's best player be the best player in a playoff series? The Hawks found out that the answer could be a resounding 'yes'. And like Bogdan said, it was not just about this series against the Knicks or whatever it is that this 2020-21 postseason run can become. The Hawks have a star who can drive them on multiple playoff rides.

Trae became the second player in NBA history to score 30 or more points in three consecutive games as an opponent at Madison Square Garden. The other was Michael Jordan. For the course of the full series, Trae scored in bunches (29.2 points per game), set up his teammates (9.8 assists per game), and fulfilled his role in Head Coach Nate McMillan's defensive scheme. He ran the offense without turning the ball over and got into his floater game against drop pick-and-roll coverages. He thrived on the road in a hostile environment and weathered every sort of inane distraction with laser-sharp focus. He even hit a game-winning shot in Game 1, a shot that gave the Hawks momentum and confidence for the other games of the series.

"He's a great scorer, great passer, and he brought the defensive effort as well. He played an all-around game," Hunter said of Trae after Game 5. "There was a lot of criticism, a lot of things going on off the court, but he kept his focus and did his thing."

Eighteen months ago, it might have been reasonable to have questions about what it would look like when Trae reached his first postseason. In his first series, he answered every single one. With the NBA being as deep and talented as it ever has been, more questions will come. When they do, Trae will do his best problem-solving to come up with an answer to those, too. He is getting quite good at it.


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