Their final moments weren't elegant, and they might have been the beneficiary of some extenuating circumstances surrounding the health of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, but the Atlanta Hawks are -- improbably -- only two games away from the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.
On the first of March, the Hawks were 14-20 and 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 team that was talented and skilled but petulant and callow. Just weeks earlier, teammates openly sniped about the team's offensive approach, and Trae Young could be spotted pouting his way through a string of bad losses.
But whatever deficiencies McMillan might have as a three-time casualty of the profession, he is a coach who values order. Instantly, a Hawks team built to win began to win. Atlanta ripped off eight consecutive victories to vault from 11th place to fourth over the streak.
The Hawks' 103-100 win over the visiting 76ers in Game 4 on Monday night to knot the second-round series 2-2 followed the same trajectory. A first half beset by missed shots at point-blank range and sloppy defensive rotations behind toothless double-teams revealed a squad that had -- for the third straight game -- yet to figure out how to contend with Embiid's dominance and Young's vulnerabilities. Atlanta trailed at the half 62-49, making only a third of its first-half field goal attempts.
And it was worse than that: Young, who wrecked the New York Knicks in the first round and continued his exploits in the Hawks' Game 1 win in Philadelphia, was coping with a right shoulder injury. Black kinesiology tape was stitched across his shoulder, and during Young's respites on the bench, it was wrapped with a heat pack the size of a second-grader.
"I got hit last game, and it's been kind of sore," Young said following the Monday's victory. "For me, it wasn't a bother; it was just kind of fighting through it, knowing it was kind of sore. I just tried to work it out and keep it warm throughout the game."
Young's shooting didn't provide that warmth: He finished only 8-for-26 from the field and 6-for-8 from the foul line. After being shut out in the first quarter, Young notched his first two field goals of the game not as a primary ball handler but by working off the ball from the weak side. He did generate plenty of heat as a distributor. He tied his NBA career high for assists with 18 dimes. (He previously had 18 against Philadelphia on Jan. 31, 2020.) Young became only the sixth player in NBA history with 25 points scored and 40 points created off assists in a playoff game, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
"Like I do every game, I just read what the defense gives me," Young said. "[The Sixers] are doing a lot of hedging and trapping. For me, that's fine, that's good. Now, it's all about making the right play and the open pass. That's really pretty much what they did. They were just forcing me, really, just pretty much give up the ball."
Eighteen assists would have just scratched the surface had the Hawks not endured such a wretched night shooting the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hawks converted only 11-of-56 (19.6%) of their contested shots in Game 4, tied for the worst contested shooting game in the postseason since ESPN began tracking all playoff games in 2014. Of the nine Hawks players who saw minutes, only center Clint Capela shot better than 40% from the floor.
For the Hawks, the win demonstrated the kind of maturation that defined the second half of their regular season. John Collins, who is seeking a hefty payday as a restricted free agent but had played unexceptionally through much of the playoffs and in the first half of Game 4, wreaked havoc on the Sixers following intermission. He snared offensive rebounds, including a ferocious putback for a slam and a crucial 3-pointer to slice the Sixers' lead to a point with 2:15 remaining in the contest.
"I thought Collins was the toughest man on the floor all night," Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said.
Turnovers are often the mark of less experienced or refined teams, particularly those like the Hawks who don't rely on isolation. On Monday, Atlanta coughed up only four possessions while generating 101 field goal attempts. The Hawks also collected 82.2% of their defensive rebounds, a healthy total that helped limit the Sixers to single shot attempts.
"That's a big reason why we won," Young said. "Even though we shot 30% in both [field goals and 3-pointers], we had over 100 possessions [that ended in shot attempts]. That's big for us. We have a lot of guys who can make plays."
The Atlanta defense -- which ranked 23rd on March 1 and 12th after McMillan assumed the first chair -- compensated for their inefficient night on offense. Though Embiid was clearly limited in the second half, during which he shot 0-for-12 from the field, the Hawks were more capable on-ball defenders and more active and opportunistic helpers. Embiid's woes aside, the Hawks cut off penetration more readily in the second half and limited the Sixers to only eight points in the paint, while contesting 15 of their 16 3-point attempts -- 11 of them heavily.
"It was a great job by [Capela], guarding [Embiid] in isolation all night, trying to make every shot he got as tough as possible, as well as the weak side and us all being on a string and understanding our game plan," Collins said.
The Hawks made an organizational statement in the offseason by investing heavily in veterans Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari and integrating Capela into their starting unit. This is still a franchise trying to reach the NBA Finals since it arrived in Atlanta 53 years ago, one beset by poor ownership through much of that history. While Young enjoyed some formative moments during his first three seasons, the draft classmate he was traded for, Luka Doncic, finished fourth in MVP voting last summer.
Yet in June 2021, the Hawks are one of only seven squads remaining in the NBA playoffs, pulling even with a team that held the top seed for the majority of the regular season. If this is what consolation prizes look like for a team in the third season of a rebuild, the Hawks are sufficiently consoled as they head back to Philadelphia for Game 5.