After watching his Hawks defeat the host Philadelphia 76ers 103-96, Collins was all smiles. Maybe it was because he’d been through three losing seasons in Atlanta. Maybe it was because he was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his dunk on Sixers center Joel Embiid from Game 6.
Either way, the longest-tenured Hawk on the roster at four seasons was a happy man.
“Everybody is fired up,” Collins said. “We’ve worked all year to be in moments like this. Game 7, I feel like we all had each other’s back. We couldn’t have wanted anything else more than we did tonight. We pulled through for a victory.”
In Collins’ first three seasons in Atlanta, the Hawks were 73-158, the fourth-worst winning percentage over that span (2017-20). Last season, they weren’t invited to the bubble in Orlando, Florida. The losses just continued to pile up. And things also didn’t appear to be improving to start the 2020-21 season either.
On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20 and they had just fired their head coach. Three and a half months later, they are waltzing into the Eastern Conference finals. It was the franchise’s first win in a road Game 7 in 10 attempts. The win sends the Hawks to the conference finals for only the second time in the past 50 years — and to a place that seemed unthinkable to many when Nate McMillan took over as interim coach for Lloyd Pierce.
When asked if he thought this was possible when he took over, McMillan instead pointed to what he was trying to build as the new man in charge.
“What we tried to do was build a culture that will produce winning and create a style that will give these guys an opportunity to win games,” McMillan said. “That’s respecting the game. You play the game with effort every single night. You play the game together. And you trust in each other.
“Those were the things I was trying to build with this group. I felt like we had some talent even though it was young talent. If we could get that in our system and basically learn to execute and play to win, I felt we could win some games.”
The Hawks are just the third team under the current playoff format (since 1984) to make the conference finals despite having a losing record at the All-Star break, when Atlanta was 16-20. The other two teams to do so — the 2012 Celtics (15-17) and the 1984 Suns (19-24) — did not make the NBA Finals.
McMillan is also the seventh coach in NBA history to take a team to the conference finals during a season in which he became the head coach during the season. The previous four coaches to do so — Tyronn Lue (2016 Cavaliers), Pat Riley (twice: 2006 Heat, 1982 Lakers) and Paul Westhead (1980 Lakers) — all led their teams to the NBA championship.
The Hawks came away with three wins on the road this series in order to advance and did so despite a poor shooting night from star guard Trae Young. The third-year point guard, who had been so steady so far in the playoffs, shot 5-of-23 from the field and 2-of-11 from the 3-point line.
However, Young came up with his second made 3-pointer at a crucial juncture as he nailed a 29-footer with 2:31 left to put the Hawks up by seven.
The Sixers were able to get the lead back down to one, but after Matisse Thybulle fouled Kevin Huerter on a 3-point attempt with 54 seconds to go, Huerter knocked down all three free throws to push it back to a four-point game. On the ensuing possession, Embiid turned the ball over on a spin move as Danilo Gallinari knocked the ball away. Huerter scooped up the loose ball and tossed it ahead to Gallinari, who slammed it home to quiet the Philadelphia faithful.
It was the second consecutive hostile environment the Hawks have had to play in after going through the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden in the first round.
“We went to two tough places and played,” Young said. “It was a great environment. Loved it. Loved the s— talking. Loved everything about it. It’s been great. We got two victories. I’m happy about that. It’s been fun.”
Young finished with 21 points and 10 assists. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he is the second player in Hawks history to record a points-assists double-double on the road in a Game 7. The only other Hawk to do so is current Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers.
Young also now has 12 consecutive games with at least 20 points and seven assists, the longest such streak in NBA postseason history.
“The confidence is still there. The confidence is going to remain the same,” Young said. “Everybody is happy we made it to the Eastern Conference finals but we’re not satisfied. It’s great that we’re here, but we still got some games left.”
The Hawks last made the conference finals in 2015, when they were eventually swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Prior to that, they hadn’t made the round prior to the NBA Finals since the 1969-70 season, when they lost the then-division finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. At that time, only one series victory was needed to advance that far.
The last time the Hawks reached the NBA Finals was in 1961, when the St. Louis Hawks lost to the Boston Celtics.
While Young struggled to get going from the field and with starting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic hampered by a knee injury, Huerter took on the scoring burden. He finished with a playoff career-high 27 points. Huerter’s regular-season career high also came in Philadelphia, when he hit 29 points back in his rookie season.
Like Collins, Huerter remembers hearing about development over the past few seasons but knew that this season was supposed to be different. The Hawks traded for Clint Capela during the previous season and spent the offseason signing free agents like Gallinari. They made an in-season trade for Lou Williams to help provide a scoring punch off the bench.
“It’s been a long couple of years. It’s been a long two years being at the bottom of the East,” Huerter said. “And this year, trying to flip a switch and our whole mindset changed. The development process was over. Just kind of the culmination up to this point, the three years of guys just working and believing what we’re trying to build here in Atlanta and what we’re continuing to try and build here.
“It’s been a great three years, but hopefully the ride is just starting.”