It was only a few months ago that the Hawks were two wins away from the NBA Finals.
The young squad would eventually fall in six games to the eventual champion Bucks, but it was a remarkable charge behind the spectacular play of rising star Trae Young.
Despite the breakout season, the Hawks find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to discussing the championship contenders in 2021-22.
Speaking with TNT after the Hawks’ 113-87 season-opening blowout win over Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, Young said the Atlanta locker room is well aware of the chatter.
“We don’t talk about it. At the end of the day we’re going to go out and compete at a high level regardless of what people are saying about us,” Young said.
“We know we don’t get the respect we deserve. We were in the Eastern Conference Finals for a reason, we believe. It’s up to us to go out and prove it again.”
With a young core of Young, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter all under 25, the Hawks have every reason to believe they can continue to grow as a group.
The Hawks’ run came late in the 2020-21 season after Nate McMillan took over head coaching duties. The team rattled off a 27-11 record on their road to the postseason. McMillan now gets a full season in charge, while Young enters just his fourth season in the league after a spectacular postseason debut.
In many respects, the win over Dallas outlined the blueprint for the Hawks’ success in 2022, with a versatile defense leading to explosive offense on the other end.
Hunter, who managed only 23 games last season, spent the majority of the night on Doncic, holding him to just 18 points on 17 shots. He projects to take the opposition’s elite offensive player.
“I thought it was really good. He really set the tone for us by just making him work,” McMillan said of Hunter’s defense on Doncic.
Along with a healthy Hunter, Reddish enters the season with a clean bill of health, while Collins and Clint Capela have a full season under their belt working in tandem as the big men.
Of course, any postseason threat needs to have its source of veteran leadership, and Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Bogdan Bogdanovic are all battle-tested in big-game situations in the NBA or overseas.
The Hawks were dominant in the season opener in a matchup that had a little extra spice given the Trae vs. Luka draft narrative that will never go away.
At least for now, the Hawks are the better team, and maybe they will earn that respect as the season rolls on.