The Hawks jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first-round series Sunday in front of 16,458 fans with a 113-96 win in Atlanta, but coach Nate McMillan was quick to remind his team of what lies around the corner.
“As I told our guys, this game will be the hardest game of the series to close a team out,” McMillan said. “We know they’re gonna come and they’re gonna fight. This will be the hardest game of the series. I expect it to be physical. I expect both teams to come with urgency in this next game.”
The physical nature of the series — as well as some of the chippiness — was on full display on Sunday.
During an early timeout in the first half, Atlanta’s Trae Young and New York’s Taj Gibson had words with each other. In the third quarter, Hawks forward John Collins took an elbow to the mouth from Knicks forward Julius Randle on a layup attempt. The cut caused by the hit needed four stitches to close.
Then at the end of the game, after replays showed Atlanta’s Danilo Gallinari running into New York’s Reggie Bullock under the basket after a shot, Bullock stormed towards the Hawks bench in the timeout that followed picking up a technical foul.
On the ensuing Hawks possession, Randle gave a forearm shove back to Gallinari while he was guarding him – drawing a flagrant foul from the officials and also some high fives and celebratory hugs from his teammates as well.
“I just be trying to keep it basketball,” Young said. “I don’t care if they are in their feelings or who’s mad and who’s not. It’s just basketball at the end of the day. We’re just trying to win. All the extra stuff, it is what it is. We’re locked in. We’re focused on us and we’re trying to win a game.”
Collins said he could sense the frustration from the Knicks towards the end of a game but added that’s what he expects in a playoff series.
“You play a team so many times, things are going to happen,” Collins said. “I feel like at the end, guys really aren’t going to like each other to much on top of New York playing a physical style of basketball. Obviously, we’re going to get tired of pushed around and hit and what not. It is what it is in a sense, guys are competing. It’s playoff basketball. We just try to avoid the noise and handle business.”
As for Bullock’s charge to the bench, Gallinari said he wasn’t even aware that was happening. “I was just going back to the bench to get my water to be honest,” Gallinari said. “I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening. But I think that that would be the normal reaction when you lose a game like this. It’s something to be expected and that’s OK. We’re all competitors. We hate to lose.”
Collins said the Hawks were able to match the Knicks’ physicality from the start after starting out with the mindset that they weren’t going to let the Knicks’ style get to them. It also helped that Young continued his outstanding play so far in the playoffs. Young finished with 27 points and nine assists, leading the team in both categories.
In fact, Young has led the Hawks in scoring and assists outright in all four games in the playoffs series. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Young is just the second player in NBA history to accomplish that his first four career playoff games joining Hall of Famer Dave Bing who achieved the feat in 1968 with the Detroit Pistons. Elias also noted that Young has now created 204 points in his first four playoff games — the second-most of any player in the last 25 seasons.
But perhaps even more important to the Hawks’ success was the team’s ability to win the minutes when Young was off the court.
In the three regular season games against New York, which Atlanta was swept in, the Hawks were +16 when Young was on the floor and -42 when he was on the bench, posting a negative plus-minus when he was sitting in all three games.
This series, it’s been a different story. The Hawks won the non-Young minutes in Game 1 and 3 when they were victorious and lost them in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden. On Sunday, Atlanta was even when Young sat but that’s mostly because of the minutes the reserves played late in the game. The Hawks were +9 before emptying the bench with 3:05 to play.
Now, Young and the Hawks travel back to New York where Young was the subject of taunts from the New York faithful throughout Games 1 and 2. And like they did in the first game, they’ll be looking to quiet the crowd one last time.
“Obviously, the last one is the toughest. The last one to get is going to be the toughest,” Young said. “We’re know they’re probably going to be a little more physical, a little more aggressive, play with a lot more energy. But for us, we gotta do the same thing. We can’t just be complacent with what we’ve done at home. We gotta bring even more energy on the road.”
Brooklyn Nets upgrade James Harden (hamstring) from out to doubtful for Game 5 against Milwaukee Bucks
Harden is expected to test his injured hamstring in shootaround and has been determined to find a way to get cleared to play in Game 5, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Nets initially ruled Harden out for the game on Monday.
Before Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harden was doing on-court work, shooting and rehabilitation.
Harden suffered what the team has called “right hamstring tightness” 43 seconds into Game 1 of the series. His push to return comes after the Bucks have won two straight games to tie up the series 2-2.
2021 NBA playoffs – What’s real and what’s not in the conference semifinals
No matchup has more storylines than Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks, which is locked at 2-2 heading into Tuesday’s Game 5. Should the Nets still be considered NBA title contenders after Kyrie Irving‘s ankle sprain added to Brooklyn’s injury woes?
Our panel of NBA experts is breaking down the biggest trends we’re seeing so far in the conference semifinals.
Real or not: The Nets’ title chances after Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury
NOT REAL. An essential part of any path to an NBA championship is luck. Sometimes it comes in the form of a favorable bounce; other times it simply means a team avoids running into an untimely injury over the course of trying to win 16 postseason games.
The Nets, unfortunately, haven’t been lucky. They spent all year dealing with injuries to their Big Three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Including the playoffs, they’ve played only 15 games together.
And, with Harden suffering a recurrence of the hamstring injury that cost him virtually all of the final several weeks of the regular season just 47 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee, and Irving spraining his right ankle Sunday — both have been ruled out for Game 5 in Brooklyn — they might not play together again this season.
Kendrick Perkins says Kevin Durant will have to show he is the best player in the world for the Nets to beat the Bucks without James Harden or Kyrie Irving.
The beauty in having three stars of this caliber on one team is that an injury to one of them isn’t enough to sink your team. Brooklyn showed that by eviscerating Milwaukee without Harden in Games 1 and 2. But even for Durant, arguably the greatest scorer this game has ever seen, trying to beat Milwaukee two out of three times without both of his running mates is a very tall task.
It’s unlikely that P.J. Tucker will be able to remain quite as physical as he was guarding Durant in Games 3 and 4, when Durant shot an uncharacteristic 20-for-53 from the field. But even if that normalizes moving forward, replacing Harden and Irving with some combination of Mike James, Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown simply isn’t going to cut it.
Now, if either Harden or Irving — or both — can return before this series is over, the Nets will suddenly be a legitimate title threat once again. But if Durant remains on his own against the Bucks for the rest of this series, what seemed like a clear path to the NBA Finals a few days ago could instead become a rapid departure from the postseason.
— Tim Bontemps
Real or not: The Suns as the favorites to win the West
REAL. At least for now. The biggest advantage Phoenix has is already securing a spot in the Western Conference finals while the Clippers and Jazz battle for the other one — at least through Game 6 — while the Suns get to rest at home.
The other edge for Phoenix is one that proved crucial in a second-round sweep of the Nuggets: health. No rotation Suns player has missed a game due to injury in the playoffs, making them the outlier in a postseason defined by injuries to key contributors.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker combine for 71 points to help the Suns steamroll their way into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 11 years.
Paul was limited by a shoulder contusion in the first round, but looked good as ever against the Nuggets, torching them for 25.5 PPG and 10.3 APG. Paul’s 63% shooting was his best in any playoff series and his 8.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio his best in a series since 2008.
Meanwhile, Utah is still without starting point guard Mike Conley due to a hamstring strain and has fellow All-Star guard Mitchell playing through an ankle injury. And while the Clippers are missing only center Serge Ibaka, their stars are logging huge minutes; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have already played more than any Phoenix player has entering the conference finals.
At the same time, we should be careful not to read too much into the Suns’ dominance over Denver. The Nuggets were ill-equipped to deal with Phoenix’s spread pick-and-roll tactics, detailed last week by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and the absence of guard Jamal Murray made it difficult for Denver to keep up offensively. Either the Jazz or Clippers should be more capable of challenging the elbow jumpers on which Paul feasted against the Nuggets, and both teams are more complete offensively.
A matchup with Utah would be interesting, because the Jazz were the stronger team over the course of the regular season and would have home-court advantage, but the Suns won all three head-to-head meetings. Phoenix had less success against the Clippers, losing the first two meetings before winning April 28 with Kawhi sidelined.
I’m not sure yet whom I’d pick depending on the conference finals matchup, but before it’s set, Phoenix is the most likely team to win the West.
— Kevin Pelton
Real or not: Atlanta’s chances at slowing down Joel Embiid for the rest of the series
REAL. It has to be real, because the Hawks were the opponent when Embiid just had one of the worst halves in recent playoff history. In the defining moment of Monday’s Game 4, when a layup could’ve put his team ahead in the final seconds, Embiid admitted he didn’t have enough lift. It was obvious if you watched him repeatedly clang jumpers on the front of the rim.
Because Embiid hasn’t missed any games in this series, it is easy to forget how serious of an injury he is dealing with. Playing through a minor meniscus injury isn’t unheard of, but for a player with Embiid’s injury history and the type of game he plays, it’s truly remarkable. The guy hits the deck numerous times a game, and even if he is guilty of a few embellishments, there’s a natural inclination to wonder if he’ll get up every time.
During Game 4, Embiid went to the locker room before halftime with trainers. No one was willing to publicly admit what was going on, but the results in the second half — when Embiid was 0-of-12 shooting — spoke enough.
Trae Young does it again as he records a 25-point, 18-assist double-double to elevate the Hawks to a 103-100 Game 4 win over the 76ers to tie the series at 2-2.
With games every other day the rest of the series, the game-time spring in Embiid’s legs is likely more important than any defensive scheme the Hawks can deploy. Embiid’s activity level during Games 1 and 2 — when he routinely beat double-teams and Clint Capela even when Atlanta’s center was in great defensive position — was hard to comprehend considering Embiid had just been diagnosed with such an injury. Reality seems to be biting.
The issue is the 76ers will have a tough time reducing his load. Knowing that Embiid was laboring, and with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris having good offensive games and a recent history of being a good pick-and-roll tandem, Philly coach Doc Rivers still went to his center for the final shot.
The play worked, with the Hawks failing to handle it, but Embiid couldn’t execute. That was a microcosm of Game 4, and it could end up being that way the rest of this series.
— Brian Windhorst
Real or not: Reggie Jackson as the No. 3 for the Clippers
NOT REAL. Jackson saved the Clippers in the first round against the Mavericks. But this team was constructed with Marcus Morris Sr. as the No. 3 option behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Clippers are at their best when Morris is playing at that level. Morris is known for his toughness and frontcourt play, but he was fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage this year at 45.1%. When he is rolling, defenders have to respect his shot from behind the arc, and it completely opens up the spacing for the rest of the offense.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both score 31 points to propel the Clippers to their second straight win vs. the Jazz.
Everything Jackson has given the Clippers in these playoffs has been a bonus. He was one of the last guys added to the roster and wasn’t even promised a spot in the rotation. But he is healthy now and comfortable in his role, and he has always had a penchant for big games in the postseason. Assistant coach Chauncey Billups has been working with Jackson on his game this season, and Billups said he has “completely reinvented himself.”
Jackson has always had the talent to have a run like this. He just hasn’t been healthy enough or been on a team as good as this one. It’s fun to see veteran players like this find such a good fit. But Morris needs to be the Clippers’ No. 3 option if they’re going to live up to the high expectations set for this team.
— Ramona Shelburne
Real or not: Donovan Mitchell is the best guard in the conference semis
NOT REAL. We can stop the debate about whether Mitchell deserves to be considered a superstar. He has eliminated any doubt, proving again that he’s capable of frequently taking over playoff games. Mitchell is averaging an efficient 32.9 PPG this postseason, causing the Clippers to scramble to find schematic solutions despite being stocked with guards and wings with reputations as defensive stoppers.
But the best guard still playing — and available — in these playoffs has already wrapped up his Western Conference semifinal series. He’s resting his 36-year-old body, waiting on the Jazz-Clippers winner. And Chris Paul just reminded the world of how great he still is, conducting a point guard clinic in the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets.
Patrick Beverley and Donovan Mitchell refuse to give up on the loose ball and have to be separated by referees.
Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix turned the Suns from a bubble success story with a promising young core to a real contender, controlled that series from start to finish. He averaged 25.5 points on shooting splits (.627/.750/1.000) that are absolutely ridiculous. He made 10.3 assists per game and committed a total of only five turnovers in the series.
That 8.2 assists-to-turnover ratio is the second best in a series since turnovers became an official stat, behind only Paul’s 10.0-to-1 ratio from his first playoff series way back in 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
And that isn’t even the most impressive CP3 stat from the series. Take a gander at his numbers from the four fourth quarters: 43 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers on 84% shooting from the floor.
Devin Booker, Paul’s 24-year-old co-star, also belongs in this conversation. He certainly has hushed any talk about his lack of playoff experience, scoring a total of 81 points in his first two closeout games, pretty solid proof of killer instinct.
But Booker rode shotgun in this series, with Paul steering the Suns into the conference finals, a destination Mitchell and the Jazz are still trying to reach.
— Tim MacMahon
The Atlanta Hawks are seemingly ahead of schedule and two games away from the East finals
Their final moments weren’t elegant, and they might have been the beneficiary of some extenuating circumstances surrounding the health of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, but the Atlanta Hawks are — improbably — only two games away from the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.
On the first of March, the Hawks were 14-20 and buried in 11th place in the East when management fired coach Lloyd Pierce and promoted Nate McMillan as his interim replacement. McMillan inherited a young team that was talented and skilled but petulant and callow. Just weeks earlier, teammates openly sniped about the team’s offensive approach, and Trae Young could be spotted pouting his way through a string of bad losses.
But whatever deficiencies McMillan might have as a three-time casualty of the profession, he is a coach who values order. Instantly, a Hawks team built to win began to win. Atlanta ripped off eight consecutive victories to vault from 11th place to fourth over the streak.
The Hawks’ 103-100 win over the visiting 76ers in Game 4 on Monday night to knot the second-round series 2-2 followed the same trajectory. A first half beset by missed shots at point-blank range and sloppy defensive rotations behind toothless double-teams revealed a squad that had — for the third straight game — yet to figure out how to contend with Embiid’s dominance and Young’s vulnerabilities. Atlanta trailed at the half 62-49, making only a third of its first-half field goal attempts.
And it was worse than that: Young, who wrecked the New York Knicks in the first round and continued his exploits in the Hawks’ Game 1 win in Philadelphia, was coping with a right shoulder injury. Black kinesiology tape was stitched across his shoulder, and during Young’s respites on the bench, it was wrapped with a heat pack the size of a second-grader.
“I got hit last game, and it’s been kind of sore,” Young said following the Monday’s victory. “For me, it wasn’t a bother; it was just kind of fighting through it, knowing it was kind of sore. I just tried to work it out and keep it warm throughout the game.”
Young’s shooting didn’t provide that warmth: He finished only 8-for-26 from the field and 6-for-8 from the foul line. After being shut out in the first quarter, Young notched his first two field goals of the game not as a primary ball handler but by working off the ball from the weak side. He did generate plenty of heat as a distributor. He tied his NBA career high for assists with 18 dimes. (He previously had 18 against Philadelphia on Jan. 31, 2020.) Young became only the sixth player in NBA history with 25 points scored and 40 points created off assists in a playoff game, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
“Like I do every game, I just read what the defense gives me,” Young said. “[The Sixers] are doing a lot of hedging and trapping. For me, that’s fine, that’s good. Now, it’s all about making the right play and the open pass. That’s really pretty much what they did. They were just forcing me, really, just pretty much give up the ball.”
Eighteen assists would have just scratched the surface had the Hawks not endured such a wretched night shooting the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hawks converted only 11-of-56 (19.6%) of their contested shots in Game 4, tied for the worst contested shooting game in the postseason since ESPN began tracking all playoff games in 2014. Of the nine Hawks players who saw minutes, only center Clint Capela shot better than 40% from the floor.
For the Hawks, the win demonstrated the kind of maturation that defined the second half of their regular season. John Collins, who is seeking a hefty payday as a restricted free agent but had played unexceptionally through much of the playoffs and in the first half of Game 4, wreaked havoc on the Sixers following intermission. He snared offensive rebounds, including a ferocious putback for a slam and a crucial 3-pointer to slice the Sixers’ lead to a point with 2:15 remaining in the contest.
John Collins flies in to grab another miss and elevates to flush a one-handed jam that sends Hawks fans into a frenzy.
“I thought Collins was the toughest man on the floor all night,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said.
Turnovers are often the mark of less experienced or refined teams, particularly those like the Hawks who don’t rely on isolation. On Monday, Atlanta coughed up only four possessions while generating 101 field goal attempts. The Hawks also collected 82.2% of their defensive rebounds, a healthy total that helped limit the Sixers to single shot attempts.
“That’s a big reason why we won,” Young said. “Even though we shot 30% in both [field goals and 3-pointers], we had over 100 possessions [that ended in shot attempts]. That’s big for us. We have a lot of guys who can make plays.”
The Atlanta defense — which ranked 23rd on March 1 and 12th after McMillan assumed the first chair — compensated for their inefficient night on offense. Though Embiid was clearly limited in the second half, during which he shot 0-for-12 from the field, the Hawks were more capable on-ball defenders and more active and opportunistic helpers. Embiid’s woes aside, the Hawks cut off penetration more readily in the second half and limited the Sixers to only eight points in the paint, while contesting 15 of their 16 3-point attempts — 11 of them heavily.
“It was a great job by [Capela], guarding [Embiid] in isolation all night, trying to make every shot he got as tough as possible, as well as the weak side and us all being on a string and understanding our game plan,” Collins said.
The Hawks made an organizational statement in the offseason by investing heavily in veterans Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari and integrating Capela into their starting unit. This is still a franchise trying to reach the NBA Finals since it arrived in Atlanta 53 years ago, one beset by poor ownership through much of that history. While Young enjoyed some formative moments during his first three seasons, the draft classmate he was traded for, Luka Doncic, finished fourth in MVP voting last summer.
Yet in June 2021, the Hawks are one of only seven squads remaining in the NBA playoffs, pulling even with a team that held the top seed for the majority of the regular season. If this is what consolation prizes look like for a team in the third season of a rebuild, the Hawks are sufficiently consoled as they head back to Philadelphia for Game 5.
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