The Atlanta Hawks have become the latest Atlanta-based professional sports team to clinch a playoff berth. As the NBA prepares to tip off the opening round of the 2021 playoffs, the Hawks have drawn the New York Knicks, their first appearance in the playoffs since 2013, in the opening round.
Since both teams last qualified, there has been much turnover in within respective organizations. Former Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer now coaches the Milwaukee Bucks and Mike Woodson, also a former coach of the Hawks before his brief stint with the Knicks, now leads the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball program.
The star players of both teams are vastly different when compared to their early-2010s counterparts. Gone are the likes of Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Young stars like Atlanta’s Trae Young and John Collins and New York’s RJ Barrett and Julius Randle will be on full display when the teams meet for Game 1 Sunday at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
There is a lot of excitement brewing within both fanbases, as the long-awaited return to the playoffs is over. New York will have home-court advantage, claiming the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Hawks, 2021 Southeast Division Champions, are the No. 5 seed.
Before we get to tipoff on Sunday night, here are three reasons the Hawks can take the best-of-7 series against the Knicks.
1. Trae Young
If you follow the Hawks, you probably saw this coming from a country mile away. Star players step up in key moments when the team needs them most, regular season and playoffs. This will be Young’s first taste of playoff basketball, so Hawks fans will be taking note of how he does leading a young Hawks squad beyond the regular-season finale. Luckily for him, he has several pieces around him with NBA playoff experience (more on this later). Despite Young’s points-per-game average dipping from 29.6 in 2019 to 25.3 in 2020-21, it could be argued this slight drop is the result of Young having help on the offensive end. Will a lot of the offense run through Young? Yes. Does all of it? No. Still, though, New York will have their sights set on Young. In three games against the Knicks, Young scored 22, 23 and 20 points, the last of which saw Young exit with an injury late in the third quarter. Also to keep in mind, those first two games took place with Lloyd Pierce as head coach before the change to Nate McMillan.
Speaking of McMillan ...
2. Nate McMillan
Since the Hawks made a coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to McMillan, Atlanta quietly crept up the standings. Beginning with an eight-game win streak, the Hawks closed the 2020-21 regular season 27-11. McMillan has guided the Hawks to their fist playoff appearance in four years. They enter the playoffs winners of four on a row and seven of their last eight. Before McMillan took control, the Hawks averaged 113.1 PPG. During the 38 games McMillan has coached, the Hawks have averaged 114.2 PPG. Defensively, Atlanta surrendered 113.1 PPG before the coaching change. After 109.8 PPG.
3. A key trade and FA signing
The Hawks tried to make the most of 2020, making a lucrative trade, then spending some money during free agency and now those acquisitions have paid dividends. Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic, in particular, have proven pivotal in the Hawks’ second-half success.
Bodganovic has become a reliable, steady perimeter presence. He has averaged 16.4 PPG, but what really stands out is the number of games he’s gone over 20 points between the first and second halves of the season. Prior to March 18, he scored 20 or more in just one game. Since March 18, Bogdanovic had 18 games of 20+ points. His accuracy and range provide a threat on the outside have become a contributing factor to Atlanta’s offense.
Capela, meanwhile, has averaged 15.2 PPG in his first full season with Atlanta. At 6-foot-10, his size has become a major factor inside the paint for a key area: rebounding. For years, the Hawks struggled in the category, resulting in limited second-chance scoring plays and frustration on both ends of the floor. The Hawks tried to alleviate it by bringing in local product Dwight Howard, but couldn’t quite get the desired results. Atlanta consistently ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in rebound. From the 2013-14 season to last year, out of 30 NBA teams, here’s where the Hawks ranked in rebounding: 28, 28, 24, 9 (Howard’s one year in Atlanta), 24, 12, 21. This year? Atlanta is third in rebounding. And who led the league during the regular season in average rebounds? Capela with 14.3 rebounds per game. After coming to Atlanta from Houston via trade last February, Capela has meshed with the Hawks offense and has plenty of playoff experience under his belt, going as far as Game 7 of a Western Conference Final in 2018.
This should be a fun series. While New York swept the regular-season series, it is worth noting a healthy Hawks core plus bench can keep pace with the Knicks. Average margin of victory for NY against ATL during their three regular-season meetings? Just under nine points. Plus, both teams finished with identical records overall (41-31), home (25-11) and road (16-20).
Buckle up, folks. Let’s see how far these Hawks can fly.