Story by KL Chouinard (@KLChouinard)
With a 108-97 win over Chicago Saturday, the Hawks assured themselves that when their 72-game regular season ends May 16, they will be part of the NBA’s postseason.
The only question remaining from the final seven games of the regular season is if the Hawks will finish as one of the top-6 seeds that advance directly to the Eastern Conference Playoffs, or if they will need to navigate the Play-In Tournament which determines the seventh and eighth seeds.
For a team that won just 20 games last season and was not included in the NBA restart in Orlando, playing these meaningful games during the league’s Playoff push is a notable accomplishment.
"It shows a huge improvement from where we've been to where we are now," Trae Young said after the game. "It's really good to see."
The Hawks currently sit fifth in the Eastern Conference. If they can muster a strong finish to the regular season, they can finish among the top six teams, skip the Play-In Tournament entirely, and clinch a playoff berth outright.
"Our goal was to get into the playoffs this year, and that's still on the table for us," Young said, "but we don't want to settle for just that. We want more than that."
Interim head coach Nate McMillan remains ever focused on the task at hand.
"There is still work to be done. For us, we'll learn a lot about ourselves in these remaining games and the rest of this season. This team has not been in this position or been playing for anything like this in the last few years, and it's going to be tough. It's going to be a challenge. We're going to have to see some growth for our team."
If the Hawks do fall out of the top six, they will end up in a tournament that begins when the 7-seed hosts the 8-seed in a "Seven-Eight Game" that determines which team will play the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
After that, the 9-seed hosts the 10-seed in the “Nine-Ten Game”. Then in the final game of the Play-In, the loser of the Seven-Eight Game plays at home against the winner of the Nine-Ten Game with the winner of that game moving on to challenge the conference's top seed in the first round of the playoffs.
Obviously, the Hawks want to skip all of these games and get a week's rest for optimum health.
"We have games left at home, important games, that we have to go get to get into that top 6," center Clint Capela said.
To this point in the season, the Hawks have won 15 more games than they did last season, the NBA's second-largest year-to-year improvement for 2021. (Golden State, with a 16-game improvement, added a healthy two-time MVP: Steph Curry.) Perhaps no single player's presence has boosted the Hawks' fortunes more than Capela. In addition to being the NBA's leading rebounder, Capela has proven himself to be one of the league's premier paint defenders.
"I feel like if I do my job, defensively and offensively, I give my team a great chance to succeed," Capela said. "I'm trying to keep myself healthy and get myself going every single game."
While Capela leads the charge on defense, Young propels the offense. He has not been in many late-season, must-win situations in his NBA career, but he sure is looking forward to it.
"For a lot of the guys that have been here, we haven't been in these types of situations where games are important late down the stretch," Young said. "This is definitely a test and something that we can go through together – and we can learn together. We have guys that have been in the playoffs, and for us that haven't, we definitely lean on those guys a lot for advice."
Not everyone equates weightier stakes and increased pressure to fun, but not everyone is Trae Young, either.
"We're playing hard. We're playing with urgency. But we're also having fun. It's fun to play with this team. I love it. It's a joy to play when we're having fun."
Trae enjoys the fruits of that labor, too.
"It's a great feeling. Winning is a really good feeling. Hopefully, we can keep it going."