Playoff bound: Hawks clinch 1st postseason berth since 2017

Playoff bound: Hawks clinch 1st postseason berth since 2017

The Atlanta Hawks spent three miserable years totally rebuilding their team, with the notion of finally making a huge move this year.

Coach Lloyd Pierce has been fired. Nate McMillan took over as the interim boss.

Suddenly, the Hawks looked like a completely different team.

Everything paid off Wednesday night, when Atlanta clinched its first playoff berth since 2017 by rallying for a 120-116 success within the Washington Wizards.

"This is what I came back here for, to try to help this team get to another level," said McMillan, who figures to get serious consideration for coach of the year honors regardless of his interim tag. "These guys have awakened and accepted that. I am just thrilled to death that I could be part of this."

The Hawks aren't the only newcomer to the playoff scene.

The New York Knicks snapped an even-longer drought, securing their first postseason berth since 2013 when Boston lost in Cleveland.

New York has been one of the NBA's biggest surprises under their first-year coach, Tom Thibodeau, using a 38-31 record after seven straight losing seasons. The Knicks could have clinched their place Tuesday in Los Angeles, however, the Lakers rallied to beat them in overtime.

They got in a night after.

All-Star Julius Randle made it clear the Knicks have bigger goals.

"Check it from the list. We not close to done," he composed on Twitter.

The Hawks were 14-20 when Pierce was fired on March 1, just days prior to Atlanta hosted the All-Star Game.

The only team with more victories since the 34-game stage in the year? The Phoenix Suns, that are 26-9.

"It only shows we had it all together," said Trae Young, the face of the Atlanta franchise. "We only wanted to believe in each other and go out there and do it"

The Hawks fell on hard times after submitting a franchise-best 60-22 record in 2014-15, once they reached the Eastern Conference finals in the group's deepest playoff series because moving to Atlanta in 1968.

With a few questionable personnel moves from then-coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks slipped for 2 straight seasons until Travis Schlenk was brought in as general director and also given a mandate to completely overhaul the roster from proprietor Tony Ressler.

Schlenk relied heavily on the draft to build the core of the Group, landing Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter. For good measure, there was a shrewd trade to acquire rebounding machine Clint Capela.

Through the whole process, the Hawks were draining out salary cap space with an eye toward building a major splash in free agency during this past offseason. Schlenk managed to sign Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, both of whom attracted much-needed expertise and leadership to their young teammates.

It took almost half a season for all the components to net together -- and Pierce was not about to see it to fruition.

Schlenk made the coaching change after watching the Hawks continually blow leads in the fourth quarter. Of their first 20 losses this season, 13 were by 10 points or less. Only two of the defeats could be classified as blowouts.

Input McMillan, who had 16 years of head coaching experience with three distinct teams and had joined Pierce's staff before this year to provide a seasoned helper.

From the playoff-clinching victory, the Hawks rallied from a 13-point shortage in the fourth quarter. Young and Collins hit huge shots, and Atlanta clamped down at the defensive end to maintain the Wizards scoreless over the final 2 1/2 minutes.

"Really, where I've seen us grow is our finishes," McMillan said. "We've managed to put together 48 minutes and finish those matches."

No one is more excited compared to Young, the magnetic stage guard who had been essentially handed the keys to the franchise at 2018 when Schlenk worked out a still-debated bargain on draft night which sent that delivered Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks.

Young was an All-Star Game newcomer in his second time, and he is averaging more than 25 points a game in Year of his blossoming career -- before his 23rd birthday.

He is still somewhat irked that he didn't get chosen for this year's All-Star Game in his home city.

"I feel as I have not gotten the recognition along with the men on this team have not gotten the recognition we deserve," Young said. "But this comes with winning."

Now, he will certainly get plenty of attention.

With two games remaining in the regular season (both in home against some of the league's weakest teams, Orlando and Houston), the Hawks have a half-game lead to the No. 4 seed over Miami and the Knicks.

"Just understanding how hard it is to get to the place, to need to literally construct our entire staff to get to the position, makes it much more gratifying that we are here," Young explained. "But we are not satisfied, that's for certain."

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