In the Urban Dictionary, the word underdog means “One that is expected to lose a contest or struggle. One that is at a disadvantage”.
Do the Atlanta Hawks qualify as underdogs? Well, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
When you’re an underdog, not many people expect you to come out on top. They expect you to bow down, roll over, and surrender when you look outmatched. The opposite can be said for the Hawks.
When the team was 14-20, it looked like another one of those seasons for the franchise, so much to where people were already talking about who should they target in the upcoming draft class. Fast forward to now, and a complete 180 has taken place. The Hawks are in the Eastern Conference Finals, and are four wins away from making the NBA Finals since 1958 when they were the St. Louis Hawks.
If anybody told you they saw this coming in March, it’s time to give them a Polygraph test.
“It’s been a tough journey,” Trae Young said following the Game 7 victory. “It took a lot of losses to get here, and for us I think that guys that have been here since the rebuild, this feeling is a lot better than what it’s been.”
“Everybody’s fired up,” John Collins said. “We’ve been working all year for this moment, to be in moments like this. I feel like we all had each other’s back and as I said before, we couldn’t want anything else more than what we did tonight.”
For a while now, the media and others have continued to doubt the Hawks. First it was against the New York Knicks, who in the regular season dominated the Hawks, but in all just didn’t have the better team on paper. Next it was the Philadelphia 76ers, who had every right to be the big series favorites going into the second round.
The Hawks went into two hostile environments and won both series, despite not being the favorites in either one. As the series went on against the Knicks, it was evident the Hawks were the better team, so the odds began to tilt in their favor.
The same could not be said in the second round.
The Hawks were underdogs in all seven games against the 76ers, even with them being up 3-2 with a chance to close the series at home. One thing that the Hawks have taught many watching them this postseason is “believe”. It’s the mantra that’s been said in the locker room, on their social media, and playoff shirts through the first two rounds.
“I just see this team, they go out and fight,” Clint Capela said after game seven. “They do not worry about who’s in front of them, they do not worry where we are, they just go out there and play.”
In the four games that the Hawks beat the Sixers, their chances to win were extremely low due to the circumstances they were in during those games.
Nobody expected them to come into Game 1 and completely dominate the Sixers on their homecourt for three and a half quarters. Philadelphia did give them a scare at the end, but the Hawks managed to come out with a win.
In Game 4, the Hawks were down 18 points at one point, and came back to win the game after a second-half energy surge from John Collins and a passing clinic from Trae Young. If coming back down from 18 points wasn’t enough for Hawks fans, then they weren’t ready for the “hold my beer” statement they were about to make in game five.
The Hawks found themselves down as much as 26 points in Game 5 at the Wells Fargo Center. Joel Embiid and Seth Curry were unconscious, and it looked like the Hawks had given all they had in the series – until Lou Williams came alive. Williams and Young went on a scoring barrage and combined for 26 points in the fourth quarter to push the Hawks to a victory and take a 3-2 lead in the series.
With the Hawks letting the chance of closing out the series at home slip away, a game seven in Philadelphia was not ideal for this team. In fact, the Hawks had never won a game seven on the road in franchise history.
But when you’re an underdog, you have something to prove.
burn the boats…— solomon hill (@solohill) June 19, 2021
With the game coming down to the wire, the Hawks executed, stayed clam, played good defense, and found a way to win a game seven on the road.
From the start, none of this was supposed to happen.
The 76ers were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. This year, they had the MVP-runner up, an All-NBA player, two All-stars, three All-NBA defensive players, a $180M 3-and-D wing player, and a coach with a large amount of playoff experience. This was their series to win.
On the other side, the Hawks were the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. Having almost a similar season as last year (but with more wins), Young was not voted as an All-Star and was ranked as the 11th best guard in the East. To add on to Young’s list, he only received two All-NBA votes. Clint Capela averaged the most rebounds in the league and was fourth in blocks, but was left off of both All-NBA defensive teams.
With the major turnaround this team had after March 1, Nate McMillan finished No. 5 for the Coach of the Year. To put the cherry on top, Travis Schlenk, the man responsible for putting all these players together and not having any All-Stars or All-NBA players on the team, finished No. 6 in Executive of the Year voting.
Trae Young:— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) June 17, 2021
"When you talk about underdogs, for a team that has no All-Stars, no All-Defensive players, no All-NBA players, this team is fighting. We're in the 2nd round of the playoffs and I think we've just had that chip on our shoulder all year of being overlooked."
Not to mention, the Hawks were down two of their best defensive wing players, and Bogdan Bogdanovic was essentially playing on one leg this series.
“It just shows the belief we all have in each other and the fight we want to give for each other”, Young said. “It just shows how close this group is. I’m happy the way guys fought through injuries, guys still fighting through injuries, just to play. This is our first time and we’re enjoying it, and we want to win.”
If you don’t think this is not a team that deserves the “underdog” label, you’ve sadly been mistaken.
Young has continued to show through the playoffs that his star is rising and that he was built for this moment. Collins had a bounce back series and showed his impact on both sides of the floor. Huerter stepped up in one of the biggest moments, scoring 27 points in a close-out game. Clint Capela didn’t back down on going up against one of the most dominant big men in the league for seven games. Danilo Gallinari and Williams also played key parts in the series, and even rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed flashes in his short stints.
Last season, the Miami Heat was the surprise team of the NBA. People didn’t expect Jimmy Butler to lead that team so far, and not many thought that he was capable. That Heat team swept the No. 4 Indiana Pacers, defeated the No. 1 seed and Eastern Conference favorite Milwaukee Bucks in five games, and found themselves in the Conference Finals against the No. 3 seed Boston Celtics.
This season, the Hawks defeated the No.4 seed, defeated the No. 1 seed, and are en route to play the No. 3 seed.
They’re two different teams, but you can say that Heat team and this Hawks team share some the of the same qualities: a star player, young role players, a few veterans, and a team that plays together as one.
The Hawks story isn’t finished yet, but coach McMillan said it best after the Hawks game five victory: “If you don’t believe, you better believe now.”
So, let’s go back to the definition of underdog and see if the Hawks qualify.
Were they expected to lose? Yes. Were they expected to struggle? Yes. Were they at a disadvantage? Yes.
By definition, the Atlanta Hawks are officially underdogs, and they’re embracing every moment of it.