Wiedmer: Do Hawks have what it takes to return to NBA conference finals?

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, right, puts up a shot over Houston Rockets guards Garrison Mathews (25) and Jalen Green, back, during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 10, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Remember last year's lengthy NBA playoff run by the Atlanta Hawks under then interim coach Nate McMillan?

Remember how that team had been given up for dead in March, then somehow reached the Eastern Conference finals before falling to the eventual world champion Milwaukee Bucks?

Could history repeat? Could it even surpass last year's surprising postseason success?

We begin to find that out Wednesday night when the Hawks' whole season is on the line as they host the Charlotte Hornets in the play-in game. Win and they'll meet the loser of Tuesday night's Brooklyn-Cleveland play-in game on Friday night. Win that one and they're in the main playoff draw facing top East Division seed Miami in a best-of-seven series.

And should they lose?

See you next season with a roster sure to be revamped around star guard Trae Young, though the Hawks did win 12 of their last 17 to ease into the ninth spot with a 43-39 record.

But is there anything to be gleaned from that finishing kick? How far can this team realistically go if forward John Collins, who averaged almost 14 points and nine rebounds a game in last year's postseason - as well as hitting 55 percent of his field goals - is still on the shelf with a bad foot against the Hornets?

"He's been playing some four-on-four," said McMillan on Tuesday. "We'll see."

We'll also see if Hawks star guard Trae Young can duplicate his 2021 playoff numbers - 28.8 points and 9.5 assists - this time around. Young was the breakout star of the 2020-21 postseason and given that this season's numbers of 28.4 points and 9.7 assists are eerily similar to his playoff performance last time around, there is little reason to believe he won't do the same again, with or without a healthy Collins.

When you've just become the first player since Tiny Archibald during the 1972-73 season to lead the league in both total points and assists - as Young did this year - you clearly have what it takes to at the very least win two play-in games over three nights and reach the main round of the playoffs.

Then again, when the Hornets faced Young late in the season, they used double-teams to hold him to a season-low nine points as he missed nine of 12 shots, though he did hand out 15 assists.

Of what that night taught Charlotte heading into the play-in game, Hornets guard Terry Rozier said of Young: "We can't let him breathe."

With a 27-14 home record this season, Atlanta should win this one. Then again, Charlotte was a very respectable 21-20 on the road. They play fast. They're athletic and they can put a lot of guys out there who can hit 3-pointers, which even makes them harder to guard when they drive, especially guard LaMelo Ball.

Yet no matter what the Hawks ultimately achieve against the Hornets, and possibly the Nets, it's hard to see them getting past the Heat in the opening round of the real playoffs.

So who should continue to advance? Miami certainly has the talent, experience and depth to at least reach the Eastern Conference semifinals. So do Philadelphia and the defending champion Bucks. Then there's the most intriguing team in the whole field - the Brooklyn Nets, who'll have a relatively healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie "No Vax" Irving to challenge anyone and everyone should they get past the play-in round.

But Milwaukee still looks like the team to beat in the East, and possibly the whole thing against a West that has no LeBron and the Lakers for the second time in four playoffs and a Golden State team that's been hobbled by injuries for most of the season. Someone has to win the West and it should be Phoenix, who just might be experienced enough this season to drop Milwaukee in the finals.

Before any of that unfolds, however, the Hawks face Charlotte.

"We have to live in the moment," coach Nate McMillan said Tuesday. "We have a game we have to win."

At least they have to win it if they intend to play any more games this season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected].