More than four years after the franchise last participated in a playoff game on Apr. 28, 2017, the Atlanta Hawks are officially returning to the postseason. While that was largely academic prior to Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards, the Hawks needed just one more positive result to clinch a top-six seed and, by proxy, a berth in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. It wasn’t smooth sailing for the duration of the night, but the Hawks overcame a double-digit deficit and escaped with a 120-116 victory to ensure a trip to the playoffs.
The first quarter was quite positive for the Hawks, beginning with a 9-3 run that was kicked off by a gorgeous pass from Kevin Huerter to Bogdan Bogdanovic for a three-pointer.
The Wizards did put together an 8-0 run to take the lead, but the Hawks threw a counterpunch. First, it was Trae Young finding Clint Capela for a lob dunk to take the lead.
Then, Young kept it going with individual brilliance, scoring and finding his teammates to engineer quality offense. The headliner was a behind-the-back find to Tony Snell for a three-pointer that deservedly made the national rounds.
Trae sets em up and knocks it down. pic.twitter.com/AEZ5p2InvO— Bally Sports: Hawks (@HawksOnBally) May 12, 2021
Atlanta led by a five-point margin at the end of the first quarter, shooting 58 percent from the floor and committing only two turnovers. Young scored 11 points to key the attack and, while the defense was not tremendous, there was enough resistance to sustain the edge.
The second quarter was less favorable, however, with the Wizards cutting into the lead and eventually taking the halftime advantage. Atlanta’s second unit wobbled a bit before eventually exiting with a six-point lead, but it was the starters that allowed a 9-2 run by Washington to close the half at 59-56 in favor of the visitors.
Though it should be noted that Russell Westbrook was unsustainably hot — including four three-pointers — before halftime, Atlanta’s offense sputtered in the second quarter. The Hawks shot just 8-of-21 from the floor and 1-of-7 from three-point distance in the period, and they also committed five turnovers on the way to only 21 points.
The second quarter swoon carried over into the third for the Hawks, particularly in the first ten minutes. Washington used an 8-2 run, scoring on their first four possessions, to take a nine-point lead, and the Wizards added another 7-0 run later in the period.
Eventually, the Wizards led by as many as 13 points as the Hawks went cold from the perimeter (missing their first seven three-point attempts after halftime), but Atlanta did end the quarter with a mini-flourish. Onyeka Okongwu scored four straight points, and Young connected on a three-pointer in the final minute to slash the deficit to a more manageable 91-83 as the closing period arrived.
Washington opened things back to a 13-point margin with approximately ten minutes remaining, but Atlanta began chipping away from there. The biggest damage came courtesy of a 9-0 run by the Hawks, cutting the deficit to 102-99 following back-to-back three-pointers from Bogdanovic and John Collins.
The Hawks leaned heavily on their offense as they attempted to overcome the deficit and, with approximately four minutes remaining, Atlanta generated a pair of three-point plays — one by Capela and one by Young — to climb within a 110-109 deficit.
Following a timeout by the Wizards, the visitors scored four straight points, leading to a timeout from Nate McMillan. That left the Hawks in a five-point hole with approximately three minutes left, but they kept coming.
Bogdanovic converted a (very) difficult three-pointer to bring Atlanta within two and, after an extended stretch that should’ve been accompanied by Yakety Sax, the real drama was to come. With the help of two tremendous contests at the rim from Capela, the Hawks continued to get stops and Collins put them over the top with a three-pointer after nice find from Young.
“I knew it was going in,” Young said of Collins’ three-pointer that eventually proved to be the game-winner. “He missed a couple of them that were wide open and he was talking to me. He always gets frustrated sometimes when shots don’t go in. I was just telling him to keep it going. We’re going to need you, and we really did. That was a big shot for us.”
The Wizards did have chances to tie or retake the lead, but Washington missed their final nine shots. When Huerter buried a free throw to give the Hawks a four-point edge in the waning seconds, the win was secure, and Atlanta erased a 13-point second half deficit in the process.
“I just saw growth,” said McMillan on what he took from the comeback. “I saw growth from this group. I saw a team that showed that they continued to believe and just didn’t give in, or give up, in that fourth quarter… You saw a team tonight show some growth, continue to believe in each other, continue to believe in the things that they do out there, and found a way to win the game. They played a 48-minute game, which is what we’ve been talking about, really all season long, that we have to play.”
Offensively, it was a generally positive night for the Hawks, even with suboptimal three-point shooting. Atlanta found its long-distance stroke down the stretch and, for the game, the Hawks converted 51 percent of their shots.
Young led the way with 33 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, and he expressed gratification in accomplishing one of the team’s goals and an appreciation of the journey.
“The process is different,” said Young. “For me, as a fan of this game looking at it from afar, you don’t necessarily get to see those years of those teams that are going through rebuilding stages. You don’t know the behind the scenes of when you lose, the emotion behind losing, and not getting to experience the best part in the postseason. It’s definitely tough. So for me, knowing how hard it is to get to this position… It makes it that much more gratifying that we’re here. Not satisfied for sure, though.”
In support, Bogdanovic contributed 20 points, including a trio of three-pointers in the closing period. Capela produced yet another double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and Collins added 18 points and six rebounds to go along with the game-winner.
Though the work is not done for the Hawks at this stage as they battle for playoff positioning and a chance to earn home-court advantage, the reality of a playoff berth does check a box when assessing preseason goals, and there is clear recognition of that achievement.
“It’s great,” McMillan said when asked about clinching a playoff spot and the team’s journey. “One goal has been accomplished. When I came down with Coach Pierce this year, that was the goal, to get this team to the playoffs and to take that next step. Tonight, we do that. Now we have an opportunity to play for home court. There’s still work to be done, but great job by these guys. Coming together, playing good, solid basketball on both ends of the floor, believing in each other and what we try to condition them to do out there. The first accomplishment, we get that tonight.”
“This was the goal for this organization at the beginning of the season,” McMillan continued. “These guys have stepped up and accomplished that. I’m just thrilled to death that I could be a part of this.”
The Hawks will now face a quick turnaround with a home game against the Orlando Magic on Thursday evening. From there, Atlanta will have a two-day break before finishing the regular season with a matchup against the Houston Rockets on Sunday.