Surprising Hawks, Young playing like championship contenders

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Atlanta Hawks' John Collins reacts after a dunk assisted by Trae Young during the second half of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MILWAUKEE – Trae Young and the inexperienced Atlanta Hawks seemingly aren’t feeling the pressure of NBA playoff basketball.

They are loose and confident. The Hawks don't get rattled. They are 4-0 in postseason games decided by three points or less and 6-1 when the margin is seven points or below.

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“When you have a group that really believes in each other and really is fighting on the court for each other, anything can happen,” Young said Wednesday after the Hawks’ 116-113 Game 1 victory. “I think our team really believes that, and it’s been working.”

The Hawks have jumped out to 1-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks heading into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night. The fifth-seeded Hawks have gone 6-2 in playoff road games as they chase the franchise’s first title since 1958, when they were based in St. Louis.

Young’s 48-point performance in Game 1 was the second-highest playoff total in franchise history, behind Dominique Wilkins’ 50-point effort in Game 2 of a 1986 first-round series triumph over Detroit. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Young was the first player ever to have at least 45 points and 10 assists in a conference finals game.

He’s doing it with a flair and ease as he enjoys a coming out in the postseason, showcasing his skills in front of national television audiences who hadn’t seen much of the Hawks before the playoffs.

After faking out Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday on a crossover late in the third quarter to leave himself wide open behind the 3-point arc, Young paused and did a little shimmy before making his shot. Also in the third quarter, Young set up teammate John Collins for a dunk with a pass off the backboard.

“I’ve seen a lot of players just retreat whenever they get on this stage,” said Hawks center Clint Capela, who reached the West finals with Houston in 2015 and 2018. “What I see from him is so much confidence, fearless, attacking again and again. It’s really contagious on our team.”

The Hawks’ relative lack of postseason experience hasn’t hurt them at all. Without being weighed down by expectations or memories of previous playoff disappointments, the Hawks are playing their best when games are on the line.

Atlanta’s knack for winning close games started soon after the Hawks fired coach Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with Nate McMillan.

Under Pierce, the Hawks were 1-6 in games that were decided by no more than five points or went into overtime. After McMillan’s arrival, the Hawks finished the regular season by going 8-2 in games that fit that profile.

The trend has continued in the postseason.

“They’ve built a confidence, so you’ve got to break that,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Thursday. “You’ve got to win some of the close games. But a lot of credit to them, a lot of respect for how they’ve played in close games in the playoffs and the regular season. We’ve got to be prepared and be ready. ”

Hawks reserve forward Solomon Hill was part of the Miami Heat team that won the East as a No. 5 seed last year. Hill says the Hawks are thriving on the same underdog mentality that drove the Heat.

“That was one thing that was huge about Miami,” Hill said Thursday. “The belief in ourselves was greater than anybody else’s belief in us. There was nobody that wanted to win it more than the guys in the locker room. It showed with sacrifices. It showed with hard work. It showed with the hustle mentality that we had. And that’s the same thing showing up here.”

The Hawks are doing this at far less than full strength.

Bogdan Bogdanovic is playing with a sore right knee that has limited his effectiveness. Cam Reddish is back from an Achilles injury that knocked him out for four months, but the Hawks plan to work him in slowly after such a long layoff. De’Andre Hunter is out for the remainder of the postseason after undergoing knee surgery.

Atlanta has withstood those injuries, rolling past New York and Philadelphia to reach the conference finals.

Young has been the catalyst. Even when he isn’t shooting well he continues to have an impact. He controls the tempo of the game, gets to the free throw line and keeps teammates involved.

The Hawks have adopted his boldness and fearlessness, earning Game 1 road wins in each of the first three playoff rounds.

“Everyone seems fearless on this stage,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said. “And he’s obviously the ringleader of that.”


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