The Atlanta Hawks aren't scared of anyone

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·7-min read
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The Atlanta Hawks will run out of talent before they run out of nerve.

Their inexperience can wind up being an enemy but not right now, and the Milwaukee Bucks are the latest victims on the Hawks’ road playoff tour, as Atlanta stole its third consecutive Game 1 — this time in the Eastern Conference finals with a 116-113 win Wednesday night.

If there’s one thing about them, they don’t scare — and the longer the games go, they scare you. It’s confidence meeting poise meeting a whole lot of gamesmanship and showmanship on a stage that usually requires the most buttoned-up approach.

Trae Young can shimmy after shaking up Jrue Holiday and hitting an open three, then toss an alley-oop off the glass to John Collins like it’s an All-Star Game — and mind you, this team didn’t have an All-Star because of its slow start.

But Collins will chase down loose balls and hit a critical triple with 1:39 left that cut the Bucks’ lead to one, feeling veteran cool, and Young will take over a game in the third quarter like all the great point guards before him.

Except it’s the first playoff experience for both.

To paraphrase R&B singer Deborah Cox: The Hawks are not supposed to be here.

But they are here, buoyed by Young’s 48 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, and they’re proving they belong in winning their sixth road game in this playoff run. Collins shook off a slow first half to finish with 23 points and 15 rebounds, missing just one shot inside the 3-point line.

Trae Young and Clint Capela each hold up one finger to celebrate their Game 1 win.
Atlanta's Trae Young and Clint Capela celebrate their Game 1 win over the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on June 23, 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

“I felt we built ourselves to be able to play on the road,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “And, you know, I've told them that, they're built for this.”

They stymied the overachieving New York Knicks, survived Joel Embiid in Philly, 20-point deficits and unexpectedly dropping a home closeout game to the 76ers only to rebound to win a Game 7 on the road.

Wednesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo lived in the paint and limited his 3-point attempts to two while scoring 34 with 12 rebounds and nine assists. Holiday kept the Bucks afloat with his best outing to date, with 33 points and 10 assists, having his moments against Young at times.

But these Hawks persevered and kept taking their best shot, realizing it’s not so bad and deciding it’s much easier to keep playing hard rather than tucking their tail.

They swarmed the perimeter on the Bucks’ last offensive possession while up three, forcing a pass to Antetokounmpo and fouling him before he could get up a shot attempt.

That’s a level of discipline and execution that isn’t glamorous, but it’s smart and fundamental. It lays the groundwork of a team to be reckoned with as opposed to a summertime Cinderella.

Cinderellas are for March, not June.

“I definitely thought we've taken a lot of teams' best shots, but we're just so prepared in a lot of ways that you're going to have to continue to give us that best shot,” Collins said. “All night, we're just going to keep knocking at the door. You gotta play really well all night.”

What usually happens after emotional, exhausting series like both teams survived in the semifinals, is it takes awhile to get your last opponent’s jersey off you and to recognize who’s now in front of you.

It was hard to tell if the Hawks were playing possum, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, or lucky to be close. Hard to tell if the Bucks were getting ready to gag, or playing with their food.

With Young, who has to be firmly in the superstar conversation, the Hawks are always lurking. And under McMillan, he’s been given the freedom to drive the car. He noted on the telecast the Hawks were moving a step slow, but they never allowed the Bucks to run away and hide.

How many teams have crumbled under lesser circumstances, who’ve taken the first out due to injury or adversity to call it a game, a series, a season?

The Hawks have been that team before, but no more. There’s an identity and it goes beyond Young playing the road jester, even though it’s a role he clearly embraces.

“I think he has the skill that these top players have in this league, you have to put it with the top guys,” McMillan said. “He really didn't have a weakness on the offensive end of the floor.”

It’s hard to argue, even though Young is just entering the pantheon of great offensive players in a great offensive league, carving his own niche — doing it in a way that will be satisfying since he can say nobody gave it to him.

He’s taking it, continually, with McMillan’s encouragement.

“I mean, I know it's a big deal, but not a lot of people believe we can win,” Young said. “So I mean, it's a big deal.

“I'm all for the biggest moments. And I don't know, I feel like I've worked my whole life. And we've talked about, in our little conversations we've had, that just getting to the playoffs is something that I wanted to do this year.”

Trae Young drives for the basket against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Hawks guard Trae Young was unafraid of going straight at Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports)

McMillan rattled off all what Young has seen, just in the 50 games or so he’s coached him: Box-and-ones, bigger defenders, physical defenders, traps and pick-and-roll blitzes.

“And this is a part of the growth that he has to go through,” McMillan said. “And the good players, they go through this, they learn from it, but they don't allow the different coverages to take them out of their game, they still find ways to be productive.”

So after Antetokounmpo fussed at his teammates during a timeout about Young’s shimmy and Holiday got physical and won a few battles, the Hawks found themselves down seven with four minutes left.

They had no answer for Antetokounmpo on the move or Holiday’s 3-point shooting.

But they had answers, and fear wasn’t part of the equation.

If they were frontrunners, they’d be easy to write off, easy to predict a Game 2 answer from the desperate team would be a resounding one, a knockout blow that could keep the Hawks staggering all the way home and through the weekend.

But it doesn’t feel that way, it just doesn’t look familiar. There’s no template for this, but they seem to have just enough of a little bit of everything to keep opponents honest. Clint Capela has been to the conference finals before, part of a Houston Rockets team in 2018 that blew a 3-2 lead to the dynastic Golden State Warriors and gagged a Game 7 at home.

“I've been on the stage, it's my second time,” Capela said. “And I've seen a lot of players just retreat whenever they get on the stage. But what I see from [Young] is so much confidence, fearless, attacking again and again.”

Capela kept attacking, getting a late putback with 29.8 seconds left to give the Hawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, the topper on a workman-like 12-point, 19-rebound night.

“You got to play really well [to beat us], the entire night,” Collins said. “Like I said, we're coming.”

No, you’re here.

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