From Building to Believing Part 3: The Breakthrough

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series on the Making of the Hawks

Click here to read Part 1: The Investment of From Building to Believing and click here to read Part 2: The Centerpiece. 

By Ian Thomsen (@ianthomsen)

“Our goal was to have progress this year, to move forward,” Schlenk said on March 1 after head coach Lloyd Pierce (63-120) had been relieved of his duties midway through his third season in Atlanta. “And we just felt like that wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted it to.

“That starts with me, I’m at the top,” Schlenk went on. “But I think if you would have an honest conversation with our players, they would tell you the same: We haven’t lived up to expectations on where we thought we’d be as a team.”

Injuries to Bogdan Bogdanović, Kris Dunn and emerging second-year wing De’Andre Hunter had surely contributed to Atlanta’s 14-20 start under Pierce. But the Hawks had made offseason moves that had been meant to overcome those absences. Schlenk had entered 2020 free agency with the most cap space in the NBA. After missing out on an invitation to the Orlando bubble when the 2019-20 season had reconvened during the COVID-19 pandemic, Schlenk had spent the money on reinforcements. 

He acquired Bogdanović, a sharpshooting 6-foot-6-inch playmaker who would complement Young in the backcourt. Danilo Gallinari was a 6-foot-10-inch floor stretcher who would provide 13.3 points and 40.6 percent 3-point shooting this season. Rajon Rondo, the brilliant point guard and former NBA champion, was meant to provide big-game influence. Veterans Solomon Hill and Tony Snell were brought in for mentoring as productive leaders who embraced their roles — contributions that would grow in importance as the team suddenly found its way. 

They were also adding Capela, who had been acquired in February 2020 to strengthen an interior that had rotated through three centers last season for an Atlanta defense that ranked near the bottom of the league. Capela, recovered from injury, would manage the paint and protect the rim while scoring efficiently at the other end in his inaugural Hawks season.

And then there was the signing of longtime veteran Nate McMillan for his steadying experience as an assistant coach. He had coached the Hawks to a 2-1 record earlier this season while Pierce had been away for the birth of his second child. Now he was being elevated on an interim basis to replace Pierce with two-and-a-half months remaining in this turning-the-corner season.

It was as though the Hawks’ potential was instantly unlocked. McMillan, who had reached the playoffs in seven of his past eight seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers, set the Hawks on an instant winning streak — becoming the first NBA coach to win his first eight games after an in-season change since the 2003-04 season. Within a span of 19 days they rose from six games under .500 to two games over.

“I have a ton of respect for his humility that he has on the sideline,” Schlenk had said presciently of McMillan’s influence on the day the move was made. “The hope would be that passes on to our guys, and to not get rattled and just to be calm out there during games. That’s one of the things he preaches is stay calm. Stay calm.” 

The streak began in Miami with a 94-80 beating of the Heat, who were held scoreless from the field for five minutes in the fourth quarter as Bogdanović made his return from injury. Next day came a 19-point comeback — minus Capela, sidelined for that night — to win at Orlando, 115-112. 

This was followed by the midseason break for the All-Star Game, which was played at State Farm Arena in the absence of Young. He had been snubbed despite ranking No. 5 in scoring and No. 3 in assists in his conference. It’s easy to imagine that Young burst out of the All-Star break with the intention of proving himself on his own terms. The midseason change, after all, had been all about accountability. “What I told our guys, and I really believe this, if you’re looking to point the finger at someone or something, you need to point that finger at yourself,” McMillan said of the Hawks’ early-season issues. “That’s on all of us to improve, do things better and win ball games.” 

His players were listening: A wide assortment of Hawks contributed to crucial victories that drove their 2020-21 transformation. Perhaps no shot was bigger than the buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Tony Snell on a kick-out by Young for a 121-120 win over the Raptors in Tampa that kept the momentum going in the first game after the All-Star break. 

They found ways to win despite starting 25 different lineups while ranking among the league leaders in the unfortunate category of games missed due to injury or illness (291). The Hawks turned a two-game homestand nearing the end of April into a empowering statement of depth and resilience as they beat Miami (in the absence of Young and Capela) and Milwaukee (minus Young) on a combined 53 points from Bogdanović, with timely scoring from a variety of teammates. McMillan had written “believe” on the locker room chalkboard before the Hawks ended their streak of six losses against the Bucks. They would go 27-11 under McMillan after March 1. They went from losing tight games in the early season to earning the best differential in the fourth quarter (+3.1 points). Their ongoing homecourt streak of 11 straight wins (while the fans returned in larger numbers to State Farm Arena) is the best in the NBA. 

Young, 22, became the only qualifying player with at least 25 points and 9 assists (25.5 and 9.4, to be exact) and scored 30 or more points in five of his last eight games. Capela, 27, led the NBA this season in rebounds (14.3) and ranked third in blocks (2.05) and 10th in field goal shooting (59.4 percent) while emerging as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his first season away from Houston. 

Bogdanović, 28, returned from injury to provide a season-changing boost for Atlanta as he averaged 16.4 points overall; he was the East’s top 3-point shooter since April 1, converting 101 of them at 49.5 percent rate that ranked first in the league. 

A midseason trade brought Lou Williams home, adding another scoring threat to the team’s arsenal of options. Kevin Huerter, chosen 14 picks after Young in the 2018 Draft, proved to be a highly adaptable contributor while starting in 49 of his 69 appearances and fulfilling a variety of roles throughout the compressed season. 

The Hawks claimed production throughout the roster from Brandon Goodwin, Nathan Knight, Skylar Mays, Bruno Fernando and 20-year-old center Onyeka Okongwu, their No. 6 pick in the 2020 draft who offered a promising performance in the April win against Miami’s Bam Adebayo. And 23-year-old Collins, Schlenk’s first draft pick, continued his evolution into one of the NBA’s most versatile big men while shooting 39.9% from the arc — affirming that his go-ahead shot to clinch the playoff berth had been no fluke. 

The ascent to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons is not a culmination for this young team of 20-somethings. The playoff series against the Knicks is a step worthy of celebration. But isn’t there more yet to come? Someday, if Ressler, Schlenk, Young and all their colleagues have their way, the breakthrough of 2021 will be seen not as an end, but as the beginning.



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