The biggest Hawks storylines entering the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals

The Atlanta Hawks are in the Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history and its first since 2015. The Hawks have had a great season thus far after rebounding from a poor 14-20 record since interim head coach Nate McMillan took the reins. 

The Hawks are looking for their first NBA Finals appearance since 1961 and their first championship since 1958, when the franchise called St. Louis home.

Trae Young’s marvelous playoff debut run has given him increased confidence. But, heading into the matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, the Hawks know they aren’t at the finish line yet.

“The confidence is gonna remain the same,” Young told the Associated Press. “Everybody is happy we made it to the Eastern Conference finals, but we’re not satisfied. It’s great that we’re here, but we have some games to win.”

Young will draw a matchup with All-NBA defender Jrue Holiday after facing Ben Simmons in the second round. Sure, the crafty Hawks guard enters the series averaging 29 points and 10 assists per game in the playoffs. It will take a collective effort to slow Young and to cut off his penetration to the rim and elite passing ability. 

Of course, Antetokounmpo is coming off the Eastern Conference semifinals, where he averaged 32 points and 13 rebounds a game. The evident and well-documented free-throw woes could haunt him against what has been a grueling State Farm Arena crowd for visiting teams. The Bucks two-time MVP is shooting just 48% from the line in the playoffs after shooting 69% during the regular season on a similar volume. 

If the Hawks are to neutralize him, the defense will have to force tough contested shots and make Giannis earn it at the line or force other players to get involved. Milwaukee’s only averaging 23.5 bench points per game, the fourth-lowest among the 16 teams in the playoffs this season. For comparison, the Hawks 29.6 rank seventh-best.

Two guys who have taken a bit of stress off Young’s shoulders have been Kevin Huerter and Danillo Gallinari. Gallinari is scoring 13 points in 25 minutes per game during the playoffs, and Huerter scored in double-figures in five of the seven games in the semifinals.

Huerter is continuing to transform into a more confident player. Look at the Game 7 career night, where he led the team with 27 points over the 76ers in Philadelphia.

 “This year, trying to flip a switch our whole mindset changed,” Huerter told Yahoo Sports. “The development process was over, and the culmination up to this point, guys just working, guys believing in what we’re trying to build here in Atlanta and what we’re going to try and continue to keep building.”

The head coaching battle could decide some games, too, with Nate McMillan and Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. McMillan has guided the Hawks since March 1, while Budenholzer led the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins in the 2014-2015 season.

This series will come down to who makes the necessary adjustments and use the best rotation. The Bucks bring in the league’s best defense, but the Hawks endured a similar problem with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the second round. Atlanta has a myriad of shooters who can get hot and come back from any deficit. 

McMillan has accomplished many feats this season, including taking over a team mid-season and reaching the conference finals, which only two others have done in the last 40 years. Under him, Atlanta’s rolling: they’re 35-15 overall and 8-4 this postseason. McMillan will have to get his young star Young going early in games and set up a game plan to slow down Milwaukee scorers on the defensive end. Coaching is no easy feat, but whoever coaches the best will win this series. 

The Hawks continue to shatter expectations and have a finals berth on the line against an experienced bunch, but this team is young and hungry. It will take more than just Young to advance the starters, and role players have to step up to secure Atlanta’s first finals berth in 62 years. But, the challenge is one that everyone is looking forward to.

“There’s just a belief, you can’t explain it,” Huerter told Yahoo Sports. “It’s house money. Nobody expects much from us, we’re going out there confident every game and trying to do what we can.”