It's not over. The Atlanta Hawks still have to win one more game to knock off the New York Knicks and advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs. We've seen the Hawks collapse before. We could conceivably see it again.
But it doesn't look that way after Sunday's 113-96 win over the Knicks inside the Big Peach's State Farm Arena put Atlanta up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. It looks like the Hawks might be onto something both special and sustainable. At least as long as they're smart enough — always a question mark with this franchise — to hold on to interim coach Nate McMillan.
To understand how much McMillan deserves credit for the Hawks' vastly improved performance since he replaced Lloyd Pierce on March 1, Atlanta is now 19-2 at home since he took over. The team is 28-11 overall during that span, including the postseason.
Assuming the Hawks don't collapse against the Knicks, it's time to reward McMillan for the good work he has done with a young team. Give him a three-year deal with an automatic rollover provision if the team finishes no worse than fourth in the Eastern Conference. Make him feel both wanted and needed.
One other thing: Quit second-guessing whether the Hawks got fleeced by the Dallas Mavericks when the two teams traded draft picks in 2018, Dallas using the third pick on Luca Doncic and the Hawks taking Oklahoma Sooners point guard Trae Young at No. 5.
Yes, I know Doncic is terrific, as skilled and versatile a player with the ball in his hands as the league has had in many years. But anyone watching the Hawks-Knicks series would have to say the same thing about Young, who may not always shoot it quite as well as Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry — the best long-range shooter in the history of the game — but sometimes actually looks quicker than Curry.
And if he's not quite as accurate, he does have that same outrageous range. If you're not aware of Young three feet inside the half-court line, he'll soon prove that you should have been aware, often swishing shots from 30 feet out.
Not that Sunday was his best game, though any time you score 27 points and hand out nine assists in a playoff win — as Young did — you've done nothing to apologize for. Yes, he only hit four of 14 attempts from 3-point range, but he was 9-of-21 overall from the field and made all five of his free throws. The Knicks haven't come close to stopping Young in this series — he has scored 30 or more twice and more than 20 in all four games — and if he continues to embarrass them in Game 5 on Wednesday night in New York, there will be no Game 6.
Keep this up, and Knicks super fan Spike Lee might even show Young some respect.
Does that mean the Hawks can then knock out East top seed Philadelphia in the conference semifinals? Not necessarily. Philly's a different animal than the scrappy Knicks. The 76ers have massive Joel Embiid, an MVP candidate, inside. The Knicks are a bit undersized across the board. Philly is anything but small at all spots on the floor.
Even with Young and the underrated Bogdan Bogdanovic firing on all cylinders, along with super sub Danilo Gallinari and the streaky John Collins, a series victory against the Sixers would seem a long shot for the fifth-seeded Hawks.
But that doesn't mean this season — at least as long as they knock off the fourth-seeded Knicks — shouldn't be seen as a huge success since McMillan was promoted.
A single example of McMillan's coaching chops that has nothing to do with Young: The Knicks' Julius Randle scored 40 or more points three times during the regular season. Two of those games were against the Hawks. In the playoffs, Randle scored 15, 15 and 14 prior to Sunday's 23-point outburst. Far more impressive from an Atlanta standpoint, in those first three games Randle shot a combined 13-for-54 (24%) from the floor. He was 7-for-19 in Game 4.
Said an Atlanta radio announcer Sunday regarding Randle: "The Hawks are in his head."
Watching Young, Bogdanovic and Gallinari light it up from downtown could get in a lot of players' and teams' heads.
Young is all but unguardable on the dribble. When former Wake Forest star Collins is on, everyone on court for Atlanta can knock down 3-pointers. And the defense, though not exactly suffocating, is more than serviceable inside when big man Clint Capela can stay out of foul trouble and protect the rim.
As the playoffs continue, none of this would seem to trouble either the Brooklyn Nets in the East or the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers in the West.
The Nets should still advance to the NBA Finals unless the Milwaukee Bucks can pull the upset. The Lakers should be the West winners, though Utah is certainly capable of knocking off the reigning league champs.
But if the Hawks can play as well from start to finish next season as they've played from March forward under McMillan, they just might be in everybody's head this time next year.