With playoff seeding on the line and only six games remaining, the Hawks entered Wednesday night in need of a win to close the gap between them and the Knicks as well as stay ahead of the Heat and Celtics. Unfortunately, one of the hottest teams — winners of five straight — and owners of the best record in The Association stood in Atlanta’s way.
Phoenix is the surprise of this NBA season, entering last night’s game with a 47-18 record, including a remarkable 22-9 mark against teams with winning records. The additions they made this offseason, particularly point guard Chris Paul, have catapulted them into the top-tier of NBA teams, but you wouldn’t have known it if you just watched last night.
The Hawks put on an offensive clinic from start to finish — as they have done in most games since Nate McMillan took over as head coach. Atlanta tallied 42 first-quarter points, but Phoenix was equally efficient, keeping pace with 38 of their own. The second quarter slowed down a bit, with both teams going back and forth before heading to the locker room. The Hawks held a two-point lead, thanks largely to their bench, which outscored the Suns’ second unit 29-12.
The second half is where things got ugly for Phoenix. Featuring an incredibly balanced attack, the Hawks were able to thrash the Suns 68-38 in the final two periods. With nearly nine minutes left in the game, Monty Williams — the likely winner of the NBA’s Coach of the Year award — pulled his starters. It was arguably the most impressive 48 minutes of basketball the Hawks put together all season — not just because of how much they won by or who they beat, but because of how they did it.
Now that they are nearly at full strength, the Hawks have a legitimate claim at being the deepest team in the NBA. If Nate McMillan wanted to, he could play 12-13 guys without much of a drop-off on any given night. Frankly, it’s a bit ridiculous, and they still are without De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish.
Wednesday night was a perfect example of this. The Hawks put up 135 points, shot 63.1% from the field and 50% from the three-point line, beat the team with the best record in the NBA by 32 points, and did so without a single player scoring more than 18 points.
Atlanta had eight guys score nine or more points. Clint Capela, the team’s unsung hero this season, led the way with 18 points to go along with his 10 rebounds. Trae Young, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Bogdan Bogdanovic all had 16 points. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu put together the best performance of his young career, tallying 14 points, seven rebounds, and three steals; Kevin Huerter also chipped in 13 points, and John Collins added nine on just four shots.
The Hawks are now 25-11 in games coached by Nate McMillan, and they appear to be a team that can make some noise in the playoffs. They have a star point guard that seems to be maturing by the day, an unheralded star that can dominate at the rim on both ends in Clint Capela, and a supporting cast that is deeper than any in the league. Experience may not be on their side, but chemistry seems to be, which is remarkable considering how few games these guys have played with one another due to injuries.
For the first time since Dominque Wilkins was suiting up in the Pac-Man uniforms, the Hawks have a real chance to reach the NBA finals. That might sound blasphemous to people who haven’t watch this team, but it’s true. Atlanta has all the ingredients to make a deep playoff run, and while they might be underdogs in all of their matchups past the first round, they will certainly be live dogs. This is a team that nobody else in the postseason is eager to face.