Three months into the NBA season, the Atlanta Hawks weren’t a playoff team let alone a team capable of making the Eastern Conference finals.
Yet, that’s where the fifth-seeded Hawks are after defeating the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, 103-96, in Game 7 on their Eastern Conference semifinals series on Sunday.
The Hawks will play Milwaukee – winners over Brooklyn in Game 7 on Saturday – in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Wednesday in Milwaukee. It was the second consecutive East semifinals series that went the distance and the road team won Game 7. It was Atlanta’s fifth road victory of the playoffs and third in Philadelphia this series.
The Hawks reached the conference finals for just the second time since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1968, and they are now trying to get to the Finals for the first time since becoming the Atlanta Hawks.
Trae Young didn’t have his best shooting game. It wasn’t even mediocre. It was just an off night shooting.
But the Hawks displayed an attribute of a quality team. They were able to win a Game 7 on the road without Young having one of his typical scoring efforts.
Even with a bad night from the field, Young’s 29-foot 3-pointer with 2:31 left in the fourth quarter put the Hawks up 93-87. Kevin Huerter’s three free throws – Matisse Thybulle fouled him – gave Atlanta a 96-92 lead with 54 seconds remaining. Danilo Gallinari’s dunk after another Joel Embiid turnover extended the lead to 98-92.
It took a team effort with Young shooting just 5-for-23 from the field, including 2-for-11 on 3s.
Young finished with 21 points, but Atlanta still need his playmaking. He had 11 assists.
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The Hawks had an incredible turnaround to their season just to get into the playoffs and the fifth seed.
The Hawks were 14-20 and in 11th place when they fired Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with Nate McMillan, the former Seattle, Portland and Indiana coach. The Hawks finished the season 27-11, earned the fifth seed, steamrolled the Knicks and then knocked off the Sixers.
The Miami Heat were the fifth seed last season and reached the Finals. But that was in the unique circumstances of the NBA bubble in Orlando. The last fifth seed to reach the East finals prior to Miami was Indiana in 1994.
For Philadelphia, it’s another disappointing end to a season. They failed to reach the conference finals for the fourth consecutive season, losing in the second round in 2021, 2019 and 2018 and exiting in the first round in 2020.
Philadelphia got rid of Brett Brown last year and hired Doc Rivers, who parted ways with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Doc Rivers’ teams have a history of squandering series leads. His teams have 3-2 series leads and failed to close out in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 and his teams blew 3-1 leads in 2015 and 2020.
This season, the Sixers had a 2-1 series lead, then lost three consecutive games, including Game 4 in which they wasted an 18-point lead and Game 5 in which they frittered a 26-point lead.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hawks defeat Sixers in Game 7 of NBA playoff series