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Kevin Huerter shines in gritty Game 7 victory, Hawks advance to Eastern Conference Finals

The Hawks reach the conference finals for the second time since moving to Atlanta.

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks pulled off an improbable 103-96 Game 7 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday night. It is the first time Atlanta has ever won a Game 7 on the road in the franchise’s history, according to Hawks PR. This is Atlanta’s second ever conference finals appearance (2015).

It was a close game wire-to-wire, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any point during the game. Philadelphia lead 84-80 with 6:48 remaining in the game, which matched their largest lead of the contest.

Atlanta, for the third time this series, was able to beat the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed without great play on the offensive end. The Sixers have been able to limit the Hawks from the three-point line since Game 1 in this series, yet the Hawks were able to make enough plays — and get enough stops — to take home the series win despite shooting just 7-of-27 (25.6%) from three in Game 7.

The Sixers came into the series as one of the most highly touted (and top rated) defenses in the NBA, so them being able to impact Atlanta’s offense was far from surprising. What may have been less predictable was the Hawks’ ability to match their effort on the defensive end, something they needed to win this series.

“We came a long ways (defensively),” said Hawks coach Nate McMillan after the series win. “They’ve learned how to win games, they’re showing composure out there.”

The Hawks had nine steals in this game and forced 17 Philadelphia turnovers overall, holding Philadelphia below 100 points for the first time in the series. Atlanta has posted a 107.7 defensive rating in the postseason after posting a 112.1 number in the regular season.

Sunday’s effort was indeed a prime example of the team staying composed as a unit, as an unlikely hero rose to the stage in one of the best wins in franchise history. Throughout these playoffs, it has often been Trae Young stealing the show for Atlanta, demoralizing defenses with his spectacular passing and relentless will to score the ball at any cost. In Game 7, Young did not quite have that magic touch. He shot just 5-of-23 from the floor and 2-of-11 from three-point range. Yet, somehow that did not spell doom for the Hawks.

Insert Kevin Huerter. Huerter put up 27 points and seven rebounds on 10-of-18 from the floor. He shot only four three-pointers (making two of them) in the game. Often taking advantage of a mismatch vs. the smaller Seth Curry, Huerter was able to get to his spots inside of the arc, where he shot 8-of-14. He made 5-of-7 from the free throw line, including three big ones in the final minute.

“Trying to get to that mid-range,” Huerter stated when asked what got him going in Game 7. “I think from watching film, this season my better games have been games where I got my mid-range game going and was aggressive trying to get to that 15 feet, that 10 foot mark, especially with a smaller defender guarding me. Just trying to get to my spots, elevate and make shots.”

An array of foul line jumpers put daggers in the hearts of the 76ers, as Huerter again showed the type of confidence and aggression he’s displayed throughout this postseason run.

“Kevin came out tonight, was very aggressive,” said McMillan of Huerter after the game. “He did a great job of making plays for us, we needed that. He came up big, he came through.”

Huerter had nine points in the first quarter, making his first four shots of the evening.

The sharp shooter led Atlanta in scoring in the opening half, providing a stabilizing force with Young fighting double teams and Bogdan Bogdanovic battling a sore knee.

Young spoke about Huerter’s aggressive perking up at a time when the team truly needed it:

“He’s being more aggressive,” said Young. “With guys going out, we’re definitely telling him we need him to be more aggressive, score the ball a little more...he’s been doing that. He did it tonight.”

The third-year wing added seven more points in the third quarter, continuing to play his role in steadying the offense and taking advantage of the mismatch vs. Curry.

Down the stretch, Huerter was again crucial for Atlanta. He had eight points in the fourth quarter, including three free throws that put the Hawks up by four with 54 seconds remaining in the game.

While Young did not have the game many have come to expect of him, to say he did not impact the game would obviously be far from the truth. He garnered most of the attention from Philadelphia’s defense, and drew their toughest assignments. Neither of those things should come as a surprise.

Young still scored 21 points and dished out 10 assists across a season-high of 43 minutes, and led the team with 10 fourth-quarter points. He also got to the free throw line 11 times, converting nine of those attempts (3-of-4 on FTs in the fourth quarter).

The poor shooting performance did not stop Young from generating offense for his team, as his passing and general presence within the offense were as important as ever in helping fuel the Game 7 win. Young made just one of his first 14 field goals, but did close 4-of-9 from there.

“I know I just have to find a way,” said Young of his performance and the shot not being there. “My shot was off tonight, my right hand and my shoulder’s giving out, just still trying to fight through and push through it. Shots just weren’t going, but my teammates showed up and made plays, I was just trying to find them.”

Two other huge contributors in this win were Danilo Gallinari and John Collins. Gallinari had 17 points in 30 minutes off the bench, and the Hawks needed every single basket with Bogdanovic a bit hobbled and only able to play 21 minutes. The veteran big had two threes that were part of an 8-0 Hawks run in the second, and scored seven points in the fourth quarter, including the run-out dunk after poking the ball away from Embiid with less than 45 seconds remaining. This play put the Hawks up 98-92 with 41.8 remaining and the rest is history.

Collins had 14 points to go along with a game-high 16 rebounds in 41 minutes of play, showing a physicality inside that Atlanta sorely needed with Clint Capela occupied dealing with Embiid. Collins was 5-of-6 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. There have been some quiet games for Collins this postseason, but when all the chips were on the table, he was busting it on the glass and making a very significant impact.

A smaller but important note is Onyeka Okongwu being a team-high +9 in just 15 minutes of action, continuing his stellar play on the defensive end with the second unit. He has been huge for the Hawks in this series, providing quality rim protection when Capela leaves the floor. This in many ways allowed the Hawks’ defense to stay afloat in those minutes, though some of Doc Rivers second-unit lineups also seemed to do the Hawks favors as well. Okongwu had a handful of masterful blocks this series, often high-pointing the ball at the rim just as or before someone tried to finish on him or around him at the basket.

Atlanta will now face the Milwaukee Bucks and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks are coached by former Hawks coach, and the only other coach to lead Atlanta to the conference finals, Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015 after a 60-win regular season.

Milwaukee outlasted the Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game thriller of a series, picking up an overtime win in Game 7 on Saturday evening. There will be approximately a 24-hour rest advantage for the Bucks, but both teams have battled hard to get to this point.

The Hawks now have two off days to prepare for Milwaukee, but McMillan reflected on the journey to this point for a moment after last night’s win.

“I’m really happy for this group of guys and coaches,” said McMillan following the series win. “All that we have talked about, they have done. There’s no quit in this team. They continue to work together. They continue to trust each other. They continue to believe.”

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Hawks and the Bucks will be in Milwaukee Wednesday evening at 8:30 pm ET.

Stay tuned.