“We’ll be back”: The Hawks’ cinderella season is over, but this is just the first chapter of the next decade

“We’ll be back”

That was the message Trae Young repeated as he walked off the floor for the final time this season after the Game 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. He looked up to the crowd, clapped and pointed to the floor.

“I meant that with my whole heart,” Young said after the game.

The Atlanta Hawks were not supposed to be two wins away from the NBA Finals in their first season coming out of a rebuild. They won 20 games last season and finished with the fourth-best odds in the NBA Draft Lottery. Making it to the playoffs was the stated goal; behind the scenes, the organization would have been satisfied if they were in the Play-In Tournament and showed potential success for the future in their first-round matchup with either the No. 1 or 2 seed.

“We talked about shocking the NBA,” Head Coach Nate McMillan said after the game. “I think this group this year, they did shock the NBA with their sacrificing and their commitment to each other, the trust that they showed, the work that they put in to get to this point.”

When McMillan took over 34 games into the season, no one could have expected that team to make it this far. They were 14-20, the worst fourth-quarter team in the NBA and one of the biggest disappointments in the first half of the season. That group didn’t know how to win.

And then everything changed instantly.

McMillan voice was needed inside the underachieving, youthful teams locker room. And his voice resonated with the young core who needed guidance.

They won eight straight games, they quickly became one of the best teams at the end of games and, most importantly, the Hawks actually showed promise defensively. They started believing that the group assembled this past offseason was talented and supposed to be one of the better teams in the league. The Hawks needed someone to believe in them, and McMillan was that person.

The confidence boost was all the Hawks needed to go from leagues biggest bust to Cinderella story. The best example being Cam Reddish.

Under Lloyd Pierce, Reddish’s through the roof potential became stagnant. There was belief Reddish had the highest potential within the franchise, that includes Young.

Reddish played in only three games under McMillan after sitting out the past four months with Achilles soreness. Without any ramp-up at all, in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals, that talent was on display.

He was the same defensive pest we saw in his rookie season and before he got hurt this year. But the difference in his game was on the offensive side. He played with confidence and assertiveness never seen before on the NBA level.

He finished with six 3s off the bench in Game 6, a franchise-high for a non-starter. There was optimism that a new voice for Reddish was going to unlock the talent the Hawks saw when they drafted him 10th overall. We saw that in these past three games.

“I really took to Cam when I first got here,” McMillan said. “He was a kid that I talked to early and was really wanting to coach him. I see a lot of Paul George in Cam — his length, his ability to defend. Working on his offensive game, (on Saturday) he shot the ball well, shooting the 3, as well as putting the ball on the floor getting to the basket. Kind of the makeup is really similar. He showed that he has a lot of potential. So that’s a talented player.”

McMillan coached George while in Indiana, so the comparison is one that would be familiar to him. For only coaching Reddish in three games, it speaks volumes that McMillan feels that way.

“We kind of had a connection when I first met him,” Reddish said. “He just told me to just play my game. It felt good to just feel like he was on my side. I’m always going to have his back for sure. Good dude, great relationship.”

Reddish said it was an honor that McMillan compared him to George and said, “Coach, thank you if you’re watching (the Zoom press conference).”

This version we saw of Reddish simply raises the ceiling for this Hawks team because we saw what De’Andre Hunter can bring when healthy. If Reddish can also be a lengthy wing who can create his own shot, shoot with accuracy (which has been an issue in the regular season), handle the ball and defend like hell on the other end, the Hawks will have one of the most fascinating backcourts in the NBA, with Young at the center of everything.

That doesn’t even include guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter, two guys critical to the Hawks development and team going forward. Despite a disappointing final two games, Huerter showed his worth this postseason run. His shot is pure and has proven to hold up enough defensively.

Bogdanovic, the Hawks big offseason acquisition, was phenomenal throughout the second half of the season as well. He ended up shooting 45 percent from 3 on nearly 8 attempts per game. Bogdanovic made Young better, and Young made Bogdanovic better. That is what you want from your star player and big money acquisition.

But Bogdanovic’s commitment and strength was proven beyond anyone would expect him to go. He suffered an avulsion fracture in his knee earlier in the season, which forced him to miss 25 games. Before that he was recovering from coronavirus which caused him to come into the season out of shape.

“I didn’t want to be that guy who got hurt, took their money and didn’t do anything,” Bogdanovic said. “I am not that kind of guy. I love basketball. I love to compete. I love the game so much. I never disrespect the game in my life. You can’t fuck with the game. That’s Nate’s saying.”

With the influx of talent on the roster, it meant players were going to have to sacrifice. None made a bigger sacrifice than John Collins. He was the No. 2 option for the Hawks in the past two seasons. That was not the case on most nights for Atlanta this season, and to his credit, Collins was happy with it. He wanted to win.

The losing he experienced in the past three seasons had drained him. Whatever was asked of him this season, if it meant winning, he was going to do because he wanted to show that his impact was meaningful.

Collins is hoping his commitment to playing team ball over padding his stats will translate in him remaining with the team long term. Collins was in numerous trade rumors at the deadline, but his messaging has been the same throughout: He wants to stay in Atlanta.

What Atlanta showed this postseason is that it’s capable of advancing deep into the postseason even without multiple stars. That’s what made this run so much fun. The Hawks proved everyone wrong, and Young was at the heart of it. Here’s someone who’s been ridiculed from the moment he airballed his first professional shot in Summer League three years ago. He’s been called a bust. He’s been labeled overrated. He’s been cursed out by opposing arenas.

It was Young’s mission this offseason to change the narrative surrounding him that he was just all about empty stats and the Hawks could not build a successful team around him. About that.

“I just care about winning,” Young said. “Hopefully people have a different mindset when they look at me in that type of light.”

If they don’t now, they never will, and that’s OK. Part of the journey is understanding that not everyone will be on your side. This might be the end of the road for the 2020-2021 Atlanta Hawks, but this journey is just beginning. Something special is brewing in Atlanta, and the Hawks are here to stay.


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