ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks spent three miserable years totally rebuilding their team, all with the idea of finally making a big move this season. Yet as the NBA All-Star break approached, they were limping along with one of the worst records in the league.
And then Lloyd Pierce was fired on March 1, the Hawks' progress having stalled during his third season as head coach. Nate McMillan took over as the interim boss.
Suddenly, Atlanta looked like a totally different team.
It all paid off Wednesday night, when the Hawks clinched their first playoff berth since 2017 by rallying for a 120-116 victory over the Washington Wizards.
"This is what I came down here for, to try to help this team get to the next level," said McMillan, a former head coach for the Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers who joined Lloyd's staff as an assistant in November. "These guys have stood up and accepted that. I'm just thrilled to death that I can be part of this."
The Hawks aren't the only team back in the playoffs for the first time in a while. The New York Knicks snapped an even longer drought Wednesday night, securing their first postseason berth since 2013 when the Boston Celtics lost on the road to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Knicks have been one of the NBA's biggest surprises under their first-year coach, Tom Thibodeau, with a 38-31 record after seven straight losing seasons. They could have clinched their spot Tuesday in Los Angeles, but the Lakers rallied to beat them in overtime. New York got in a night later, though, and All-Star big man Julius Randle made it clear the Knicks have bigger goals.
"Check it off the list. We not close to done," he wrote on Twitter.
The Hawks were 14-20 when Pierce was fired on March 1, just days before Atlanta hosted the NBA All-Star Game. Since McMillan took over, the Hawks are 25-11 going into Thursday night's home game against the Orlando Magic.
The only team with more victories since the 34-game point in the season? The Phoenix Suns, who are 26-9.
"It just shows we had it all along," said Atlanta point guard Trae Young, just 22 but the face of the franchise since being the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. "We just needed to believe in each other and go out there and do it."
The Hawks fell on hard times after posting a franchise-best 60-22 record in 2014-15, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals in the team's deepest playoff run since moving to Atlanta in 1968.
With some questionable personnel moves by coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks slipped for two straight seasons before Travis Schlenk was brought in as general manager and given a mandate by owner Tony Ressler to totally overhaul the roster.
Schlenk relied heavily on the draft to build the core of the team, landing Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter. For good measure, there was a shrewd trade to acquire rebounding machine Clint Capela.
Through the entire process, the Hawks were clearing out salary cap space with an eye toward making a big splash in free agency during this past offseason. Schlenk was able to sign Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, who both brought much-needed experience and leadership to their young teammates.
It took nearly half a season for all the parts to mesh, and Pierce wasn't around to see it to fruition. Schlenk made the coaching change after watching the Hawks continually blow leads in the fourth quarter. Of their first 20 losses this season, 13 were by 10 or fewer points. Only two of the defeats could be classified as blowouts.
Enter McMillan, who had 16 years of head coaching experience in the league and was already in the building.
In Wednesday's playoff-clinching victory, the Hawks rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Young and Collins hit huge shots, and Atlanta clamped down at the defensive end to hold the Wizards scoreless for the final 2 1/2 minutes. With that, the McMillan-led Hawks improved to 12-5 when the margin is 10 or fewer points.
"Really, where I've seen us grow is our finishes," McMillan said. "We've been able to put together 48 minutes and finish those games."
No one is more excited than Young, the charismatic star who was essentially handed the keys to the franchise in 2018 when Schlenk worked out a still-debated deal on draft night that sent that sent Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks.
Young started in the All-Star Game in his second season, and he has averaged more than 25 points a game in 2020-21. He's still a bit irked he didn't get picked for this season's All-Star Game in his team's city.
"I feel like I haven't gotten the recognition and the guys on this team haven't gotten the recognition that we deserve," Young said, "but that comes with winning."
Now, he'll certainly get plenty of attention. Young is headed to the playoffs for the first time — maybe even with the Hawks enjoying home-court advantage in the opening round.
"Just knowing how hard it is to get to this position, to have to literally build our entire team to get to this position, makes it that much more gratifying that we're here," Young said. "But we're not satisfied, that's for sure."