Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Jun. 23—The NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. Also known as the place dreams go to die if you’re the Atlanta Hawks — or at least the version of the Hawks that moved from St. Louis to the Big Peach in 1968.

Understand, we’re not talking about failing to win the NBA title a single time since that ’68-’69 season, as anemic as that might be. We’re talking about not even playing for a championship over that span of time. In fact, the franchise’s only NBA title was won by the St. Louis Hawks in 1958.

As elusive as reaching the Super Bowl has been for the Cleveland Browns or the World Series for Seattle, the NBA Finals have been the Impossible Dream for the Hawks. Not one appearance. None. Zero.

Another perspective? The Sacramento Kings’ current run of 70 seasons without winning an NBA crown is the only stretch of championship futility within the league longer than the Hawks’ 63-year drought.

Beyond that, their only other appearance in the Eastern Conference finals ended in being swept by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015. The Hawks’ coach at that time, Mike Budenholzer, is now the Milwaukee Bucks coach.

All of which brings us to Wednesday night in Milwaukee, where the Hawks visit the Bucks for the first game of the best-of-seven East finals (8:30 p.m., TNT).

Could these resilient, rascally Hawks — having shocked the East’s top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers with three wins on Philly’s home court — similarly stun Milwaukee and its remarkable All-Star Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo?

Or should the question become — in light of Atlanta point guard Trae Young‘s stunning playoff averages of 29.1 ppg and 10.4 assists through series wins over New York and Philly — can the Bucks stop Young?

Because neither the Knicks nor the Sixers could melt Ice Trae, as he sometimes likes to call himself, when it mattered most.

Yes, Philadelphia held the smallish Young — he’s listed at 6-1 — to 5-of-23 shooting from the field in Sunday’s seventh game, but he finished with 21 points and his 29-foot triple with 2:31 to go put the Hawks up six after his 13-foot runner in the lane gave them the lead a couple of minutes before that.

As interim Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said of Young after the game — and isn’t it about time the Hawks make McMillan their permanent coach? — “He’s fearless. The opponents have to guard for that. He will take a shot if he is open regardless of how many shots he has missed.”

This is the new game in the NBA. A little like baseball players swinging for the fences instead of average, the new crop of pro basketball players knows that hitting a third of your 3-pointers is as good as hitting 50 percent of your 2-pointers. So if you miss your first five 29-footers, as long as you hit thee of your next five, you’re probably staying in the game.

And Young must stay in the game, and play well while there, for Atlanta to win.

Even that might not be enough against Milwaukee, which has been the top defensive team in the playoffs and which has, in the Greek Freak, one of the toughest matchups in the entire NBA — a 6-11 super athlete who moves like a small forward, can shoot 3-pointers, defend, rebound and block shots like few in the game.

Yet even the Freak has a weakness the Hawks are likely to exploit as they did Philly’s Ben Simmons — a phobia about the foul line.

Antetokounmpo hit more than he missed against the Brooklyn Nets in Saturday’s series finale. He hit 69 percent of his free throws during the regular season. But his playoff numbers have been below 60 percent, which should encourage McMillan to test him early.

If there’s one place the Hawks seem to have an intangible edge, it’s toughness and poise down the stretch. It won them their opener in New York against the Knicks. And as much as Philly may have blown the series against Atlanta, the Hawks performed far better at the close of quarters, particularly the second and the fourth.

In their Game 4 gut-check win in Atlanta after falling behind 2-1 in the series, the Hawks outscored the Sixers 13-7 over the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters combined. In their Game 5 triumph in Philly — the one they trailed by 26 at one point — they won the final two minutes of the second, third and fourth quarters combined by a 21-8 score. In Game 7, they won the same two minutes of those same three quarters by a 24-16 total.

They may be the first team since the 1994 Indiana Pacers to reach a conference final without a single All-Star on the roster but they’ve all taken star turns when it matters most, including Sunday’s leading scorer Kevin Huerter, who finished with 27 points.

Said Young on Sunday, “We’re happy we’ve made the Eastern Conference finals, but we’re not satisfied.”

If the Bucks can’t hold Young under 25 points a game, the Atlanta Hawks just might reach the NBA Finals for the first time ever.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at