Their final moments weren’t elegant and they may have benefited from extenuating circumstances surrounding the health of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, but the Atlanta Hawks are – unlikely – just two games away from the game. final of the Eastern Conference 2021.
On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20 years old and were buried in 11th place in the East when management fired coach Lloyd Pierce and promoted Nate McMillan as his interim replacement. McMillan inherited a young, talented and qualified but petulant and insensitive team. Weeks earlier, his teammates openly criticized the team’s offensive approach, and Trae Young could be seen pouting through a string of bad losses.
But whatever shortcomings McMillan may have as a triple victim of the profession, he’s a coach who values order. Instantly, a Hawks team built to win began to win. Atlanta earned eight straight wins to drop from 11th to fourth place in the streak.
The Hawks’ 103-100 victory over the visiting 76ers in Game 4 on Monday night to tie the 2-2 second-round streak followed the same path. A first half marked by missed shots at close range and botched defensive rotations behind toothless doubles teams revealed a side that, for the third game in a row, had yet to figure out how to tackle Embiid’s dominance and Young’s vulnerabilities. Atlanta trailed 62-49 at halftime, making only a third of their field goal attempts in the first half.
And it was worse than that: Young, who destroyed the New York Knicks in the first round and continued his exploits in the Hawks’ Game 1 win in Philadelphia, suffered a right shoulder injury. Black kinesiology tape was sewn over his shoulder, and during Young’s respites on the bench, he was wrapped in a heat pad the size of a second-grader.
“I got hit in the last game, and it’s a bit painful,” Young said after Monday’s win. “For me that wasn’t a problem; it was just kind of a fight, knowing it was a bit painful. I just tried to work it out and keep him warm throughout the game. “
Young’s shot didn’t provide that warmth: he finished just 8 for 26 from the field and 6 for 8 from the foul line. After being shut out in the first quarter, Young scored his first two baskets of the game not as the main ball handler, but working the ball on the weak side. He generated a lot of heat as a distributor. He tied his NBA career record for assists with 18 cents. (He previously had 18 against Philadelphia on Jan.31, 2020.) Young became just the sixth player in NBA history with 25 points scored and 40 points created from assists in a playoff game, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
“As I do every game, I just read what the defense gives me,” Young said. “[The Sixers] do a lot of cover and entrapment. For me, it’s good, it’s good. Now it’s about making the right play and the open pass. That’s really pretty much what they did. They were just, really, forcing me to give up the ball. “
Eighteen assists would have only scratched the surface if the Hawks hadn’t endured such a miserable night shooting the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hawks converted just 11 of 56 (19.6%) of their contested shots in Game 4, tied for the worst contested shooting game of the playoffs since ESPN started playing. follow every playoff game in 2014. nine Hawks players who saw minutes, only center Clint Capela shot better than 40% from the floor.
For the Hawks, the victory demonstrated the kind of maturation that has defined the second half of their regular season. John Collins, who is looking for a big salary as a restricted free agent but played without exception for much of the playoffs and in the first half of Game 4, wreaked havoc with the Sixers after intermission. He captured offensive rebounds, including a fierce pullback for a slam and a crucial 3-pointer to reduce the Sixers’ lead to one point with 2:15 remaining in the game.
John Collins flies to catch another dud and rises to dump a one-handed jam that sends Hawks fans into a frenzy.
“I thought Collins was the toughest man on the pitch all night,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said.
Turnovers are often the hallmark of less experienced or sophisticated teams, especially those like the Hawks who don’t rely on isolation. Atlanta only spat four possessions on Monday while generating 101 field goal attempts. The Hawks also tallied 82.2% of their defensive rebounds, a healthy total that kept the Sixers down to single attempts.
“It’s a big reason we won,” said Young. “Even though we shot 30% in both [field goals and 3-pointers], we had more than 100 properties [that ended in shot attempts]. It’s big for us. We have a lot of guys who can play games. “
Atlanta’s defense – which placed 23rd on March 1 and 12 after McMillan assumed the first presidency – made up for its ineffective night on offense. Although Embiid was clearly limited in the second half, in which he shot 0-12 from the field, the Hawks were more proficient defenders on the ball and more active, opportunistic assistants. Embiid’s woes aside, the Hawks cut penetration more easily in the second half and limited the Sixers to just eight points in the paint, while contesting 15 of their 16 3-point attempts – 11 of them strongly.
“It was a great job to [Capela]guarding [Embiid] isolated all night, trying to make every shot he got as hard as possible, plus the weak side and all of us being on a rope and understanding our game plan, ”Collins said.
The Hawks have made an organizational statement during the offseason investing heavily in veterans Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari and integrating Capela into their starting unit. It’s still a franchise that has been trying to reach the NBA Finals since arriving in Atlanta 53 years ago, beset by bad ownership for much of this history. While Young enjoyed training moments in his first three seasons, the classmate he was traded for, Luka Doncic, finished fourth in the MVP vote last summer.
Still, as of June 2021, the Hawks are one of the seven remaining NBA playoff teams, even shooting with a team that held the seed for most of the regular season. If that’s what consolation prizes look like for a team in the third season of a rebuild, the Hawks are comforted enough as they return to Philadelphia for Game 5.