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How in the World Are the Hawks Still Standing?

First, they stomped out the Knicks. Then they slayed Joel Embiid and the Sixers. So how exactly did Atlanta turn into this postseason’s biggest surprise? It starts with Trae Young, but it doesn’t end there.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Atlanta Hawks are a miracle in the way that every team that breaks through to the conference finals must be—a perfect symphony of right places and right times piercing through the absolute, team-breaking chaos of the NBA playoffs. Consider how much in the basketball world has changed since Trae Young first shocked the Madison Square Garden crowd into silence last month. Entire ranks of contenders (including the favorites in each conference) have seen their seasons brought to unceremonious ends. Of the teams that have been eliminated, a third have already moved on from their head coaches, and a few have cleared out their front offices, too. As recently as three and a half weeks ago, Kemba Walker was starting at point guard for the Celtics, attempting to beat back a juggernaut Nets team in the first round. But that juggernaut is now gone, Walker is now a member of the Thunder, and the Hawks, glorious and improbable, are still right here.

Enough tension can build over the course of a single competitive series to send an entire organization into a spiral. To simply withstand it is an achievement, and to prevail in a pressure-cooker Game 7 against one of the best players in the world and the top-seeded team in the conference is a true brush with greatness. Just to get this far took a level of guile, resolve, and absolute focus we couldn’t have known the Hawks had in them until now. This was the youngest team in the second round. Now it’s one of the NBA’s final four, a few good weeks away from taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy for themselves. The message the fifth-seeded Hawks send by dispatching the Sixers and making it to the Eastern Conference finals isn’t that they will unfailingly reach this stage every year as their core develops, but that they undeniably could.

“This year, we were trying to flip a switch,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said. “The whole mindset changed. The development process, I guess, is over.”

That’s enough to drive an organization forward, especially when you consider the way in which Atlanta has won to this point. A team that didn’t even qualify for the Orlando bubble last season and fired its former head coach in March now moves with impressive clarity. Young has been every bit the superstar the Hawks needed him to be, and has overwhelmed two of the best defensive teams in the league this season with the constant threat of his passing and shooting. According to Synergy Sports, Young created 57.6 points per game by score or assist over the series against Philadelphia. It honestly felt like more. Joel Embiid may have been the most dominant star in the series, but Young was easily the most constant—a threat not just when he got to his spots, but with every live dribble in an offense that allows him as much dribbling as he needs.

Because Young is the kind of guard who can control a high-leverage playoff series, John Collins can be patient as he looks for seams to attack. The curse of a flexible skill set is the way it forces a player to constantly adapt, restructuring his role on a nightly basis. Young knows where and how his shots will come. Collins doesn’t, which can be hard on a gifted young player in a contract year. So much of his evolution this season has come from learning to let go of expectations and live in every possession.

“Do I have to score 25 every time to win?” Collins said, per The Athletic. “That’s not the case, and it’s been me understanding that the winning makes everything so much better to appreciate all of this.”

The trade that sent a then-injured Clint Capela to the Hawks was most notable at the time for how it remade the galaxy-brain Rockets; with a year of hindsight, it looks destined to go down as a hugely consequential trade for Atlanta, executed at an incredible bargain. All the Hawks had to give up to land Capela was a first-round pick that became Aleksej Pokusevski, a future second-round pick, the ghost of Chandler Parsons, and the little-used Evan Turner, who was so close to the end of his viability as an NBA player that he became an assistant coach this season. The Hawks likely wouldn’t have won this series without that move, both for Capela’s nightly, low-maintenance double-doubles and the first line of defense he offered against Embiid. He balances every one of Young’s drives with the threat of a lob.

In the end, most of the toughest playoff series are won by whichever team can stretch its stars the furthest without the bottom falling out. Yet Atlanta survived this series not just by playing Young 43 minutes in Game 7, but by managing all seven games through its collective depth. The Hawks were outscored by 17 points over the 277 minutes Young played in this series. But through hot streaks from Huerter (who led the Hawks with 27 points in Game 7), Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams, Atlanta was able to mount the huge comebacks it needed to turn the series. Gallinari alone scored about as many points in this series (103) as Philadelphia’s three top-scoring reserves combined (104).

Everything just slid into place for Atlanta, even some combinations and lineups you would never expect to. Should Gallinari really be an impactful, matchup-manipulating small forward at this stage in his career? Not on balance, but he was for seven games. Should Williams and Young play together when both are best with the ball in their hands and quite vulnerable on defense? Logically, no, and yet that duo posted an awesome plus-26.3 net rating in this series. Interim (a formality if there ever was one) head coach Nate McMillan again made all the right moves, even when they came at the expense of conventional wisdom. It helps, of course, to have Young: an organizing talent that allows every other player on the roster to find their place. But considering how much of the offense runs directly through Trae when he’s on the floor, the Hawks’ improvisational second unit was consistently better than it had any right to be.

That’s what it takes to pull off this kind of run: a team finding the exact contributions it needs from every corner of its roster. Rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu gave the Hawks better minutes than 2020 champion Dwight Howard could offer the Sixers. Although hobbled by the end, Bogdan Bogdanovic hit huge, momentum-swinging shots early in the series and helped balance lineups throughout with his ballhandling. Even for a team with a deep roster, it remains almost unthinkable that the Hawks could make the conference finals not only without De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish playing well, but without them playing at all. Any vision of Atlanta’s eventual rise would seem to prominently feature those two cornerstone wings, except, apparently, for this one. None of it makes sense until you see this version of the Hawks in action, mounting yet another unflappable comeback in a game they aren’t supposed to win, rising completely to their moment.