ATLANTA - Who would have known?
After the Atlanta Hawks stole home court away from the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals behind a masterful 48-point performance from Trae Young, the Hawks' Public Relations account shared a somewhat staggering fact.
The Hawks have won their first Conference Finals game in Atlanta history.- Hawks PR (@HawksPR) June 24, 2021
The first victory in the Conference Finals in the Atlanta era. For perspective, the franchise moved to the city 53 years ago, in 1968.
The win didn't come during the days of Dominique Wilkins - those years peaked with a Game 7 loss to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Even after having All-Stars like Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, Christian Laettner, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Joe Johnson, the franchise wouldn't get that close again for another 27 years, when a group of four All-Stars led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals as the No. 1 seed before being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And those facts aren't call-outs to any of the aforementioned stars, simply a reminder of just how hard it is to go on a deep playoff run and to win once you're there.
Who would have known that after an initial retool in 2017 and the major roster overhaul that followed, it would be a 22-year-old superstar-on-the-rise that would get this franchise further than it ever has been before in its Atlanta era?
And it's only beginning.
When the Hawks motioned to acquire Young on draft night in 2018, I'm not sure anyone could have predicted this team would be just three wins away from the NBA Finals in a matter of three short years.
I think back to the 2019 preseason, where Atlanta's young core excited me to the point that I made an entirely-too-premature prediction that the team would qualify for the 2020 NBA Playoffs and give a top seed fits, something like what it's managed to do in 2021, but not remotely close to that extent.
After watching the Hawks go 20-47 in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, I realized my crystal ball wasn't as clear as I thought it was, but the franchise responded by having a transformative offseason in which it brought in savvy veterans in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kris Dunn via free agency.
This veteran group seemed to be the perfect complement to a young core that features Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre' Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu, Cam Reddish and even Clint Capela, who is only 27 despite having been in the league since 2014. Not only did Atlanta have the talent, but it now had the right group to show them how to win.
34 games into this season, I thought my crystal ball might have failed me once again. The Hawks sat six games under .500, prompting a coaching change and a minor roster shakeup that finally allowed things to begin to take shape.
Even after the Hawks closed the season by going 27-11 under interim head coach Nate McMillan to earn the East's No. 5 seed to snap a four-year postseason drought, they were counted out from the beginning as underdogs in the opening round against the New York Knicks.
Eliminated in five.
After stealing home court from the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, there was no way Atlanta could win the series, right? Wrong. Hawks in seven.
There's not much scarier than a team that believes in itself and has nothing to lose - this Atlanta team is just that. And they're doing it without Hunter, who underwent season-ending knee surgery following the series win over New York.
After stealing Game 1 in Milwaukee, the Hawks suffered an awful loss in Game 2, one that has prompted more of the same doubts that came up in each of the first two rounds. But now, as the series shifts to Atlanta, we're reminded that this city has never been this close to the NBA Finals before.
Sunday's Game 3 is the biggest game this franchise has hosted - not only because of what it means in the short term but also because of what it represents for the future.
Okongwu is 20. Young, Reddish and Huerter are all just 22. Collins and Hunter are still only 23. Capela is 27 and even Bogdanovic is a year away from 30. Save for Capela, none of the aforementioned players had any playoff experience coming into 2021.
A run like this isn't normal. We usually see teams undergo bumps and bruises in the form of first-round exits, getting their fair share of playoff licks before learning what it takes to make a sustained run.
But this Hawks team is learning on the fly and overcoming the bumps and bruises all in one.
Throughout the postseason, the Hawks - and their fans - have donned shirts that read one word: Believe. It's fitting. This team's belief has gotten it this far in the postseason, and this belief is why they should never be counted out.
In 2021, and especially in the years to come.
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