In the end, the Atlanta Hawks' 2021 playoff run was like every single one that had come before it since the franchise moved from St. Louis to the Big Peach in 1965: It ended without a trip to the NBA Finals.
But at least the Hawks, for just the second time, reached the Eastern Conference finals before falling 118-107 to the visiting Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, a defeat that eliminated Atlanta 4-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Beyond that, they got to the conference title round with an interim head coach — Nate McMillan, who should soon be an interim no longer — and without gifted young forward DeAndre Hunter, who was lost for much of the playoffs due to an injury.
Throw in star point guard Trae Young's painful bone bruise and right ankle sprain — an injury that sidelined him for all of Games 4 and 5 — and it could be argued the outcome could have been different against the Bucks. Especially after Milwaukee played the last two games without superstar post player Giannis Antetokounmpo — the two-time NBA MVP is one of the five best current players in the pro game — due to a knee injury.
But Milwaukee had also made deep playoff runs previously only to come up short.
As Antetokounmpo said a year ago of the Bucks' second-round loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA's playoff bubble in Florida: "Nobody is going to be happy."
Failure often leads to success. And Young seemed to say as much after Saturday's loss: "This whole thing is about experience. I think with the Bucks, they've been to this point a couple times. I know that feeling — they didn't want to go home again. I think for us we've got that same feeling now."
They should. The Hawks still have holes that need filling. They need a defensive stopper at guard, because as good as Young is with the ball, he's often overmatched against the NBA's stronger, bigger, more physical guards on the defensive end. On nights he's scoring with ease, his defensive shortcomings are a fair tradeoff. But every now and then, the Hawks may need a stopper more than a starter, at least for six or eight minutes at a time.
Another glaring need is a post player who can score from farther out than two feet. Clint Capela is a solid on-ball defender against the bottom two-thirds of the league's centers. He can block shots and rebound. But as the game has evolved, and more and more centers shoot 3-pointers, or at least 18-foot two-pointers, not having to account for Capela on defense makes guarding an otherwise athletic and long-range shooting Atlanta unit less difficult.
Third, sign McMillan today, if not yesterday, to a multiyear contract. Something along the lines of $10 million to $12 million over three years. He's not flashy. His resumé screams good instead of great. But something clicked with this team when he took over in March. From 14-20 at that point, the Hawks went 27-11 through the rest of the regular season before going on the road to clinch playoff series wins over the New York Knicks and the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
And if Young had remained healthy enough to shimmy-shake his way a couple of more times to those 48 points he amassed in Game 1 at Milwaukee, McMillan might be preparing for the NBA Finals instead of wondering when and if that interim tag will be removed.
But there's also this, which is why improvement will be necessary to duplicate, much less improve on this season's postseason: The Hawks won't surprise anyone next year. Defenses will be geared more to slowing down Young. Beyond that, Atlanta's obvious weaknesses inside — Sixers center Joel Embiid averaged 30.4 points and 12.8 rebounds on a bum knee, after all — strongly suggest a need to shore up that part of the team either through the draft or free agency.
There are also a couple of administrative decisions to make. Streaky forward John Collins will be a restricted free agent. When he's good, he helps, particularly on the boards on both ends. But his offense blows hot and cold, too much so to be able to rely on him on a nightly basis. Young and Kevin Huerter — whose shooting and defense were impressive on occasion during the playoffs — are up for contract extensions. Cam Reddish, the wing and former Duke star who hit six of seven 3-point tries Saturday against the Bucks, needs to have a far bigger role a year from now if he's healthy, which he wasn't most of this season.
It would all seem to start with McMillan, though.
"We'll be back," Young shouted as he left Atlanta's State Farm Arena court after the season-ending loss Saturday night.
Whether they're back in the Eastern Conference finals or merely back in the playoffs will almost certainly depend on the moves the Hawks make between now and next season, because standing pat is all but guaranteed to leave them standing on the outside looking in when it comes to postseason glory.