The 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks is the biggest indicator of what an irregular season this has been. Between the pandemic and injuries to big stars due to tighter match schedules made this year’s playoffs unpredictable.
Despite that, none of the expert pre-season predictions and fans’ pick ’ems could have foreseen this Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
The @ATLHawks and @Bucks tip off the Eastern Conference Finals WED at 8:30pm ET on TNT 🔥 pic.twitter.com/HumqqSn35c — NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) June 21, 2021
Milwaukee sure, but Atlanta?
The reason an Eastern Conference final between Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks was inconceivable until it happened is the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta last played in the Conference Finals in 2015, until this year the Hawks had not even made the playoffs since the 2016-17 season.
That was also the last time they had a winning record in the league until this regular season. In the previous three seasons, Atlanta’s highest regular-season finish was 12th and they managed less than 30 wins in each one.
The Atlanta Hawks this past summer in Los Angeles… work hard when the lights aren’t on you so you can shine when they are pic.twitter.com/Q8orNh1wk2 — Ben Stinar (@BenStinar) June 17, 2021
Although, this was a young team and the franchise was in the process of rebuilding so those three dark years can be excused. But even in this current season, there weren’t a lot of reasons to believe Atlanta could make a deep playoff run. Because after 34 regular-season games, their record was 14-20 with the All-star break around the corner.
Despite signing several valuable free agents to complement their young core, Atlanta still struggled and was far from playoff contention.
The turning point
It wasn’t until Lloyd Pierce was fired and replaced with Nate McMillan, who then galvanized the team and rescued their season.
Atlanta won 27 of the remaining 38 games of the regular season and made the playoffs as the fifth seed. But even the most loyal Hawks fans would have deemed a run to the Conference Finals unlikely at the time.
The Hawks were 14-20 when Nate McMillan took over. They went 35-15 the rest of the way and are now in the Conference Finals. pic.twitter.com/RnkeXUQX67 — StatMuse (@statmuse) June 21, 2021
They dispatched The New York Knicks in five first-round games and advanced to play first-seed Philadelphia in round two. Doc Rivers’ 76ers looked good all season and were widely considered the second favourites behind Brooklyn.
Facing off against a Hawks team that was considered lucky to still be in the playoffs at the time. Surely Philadelphia would brush them aside and advance into their first Conference Finals since 2001, right? Think again. The Atlanta Hawks won the series in seven games thanks to Trae Young being such a superb talent.
In addition to that, they had a strong support cast, solid coaching, and Ben Simmons being Ben Simmons. As a result, Atlanta has now made two Conference finals in six years with two completely different teams, all while Philadelphia is still “processing.”
The Atlanta Hawks have gone to the Eastern Conference finals, torn it down, completely rebuilt and gotten back to the Eastern Conference finals all in the span of the 76ers’ “Process” before they have — Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) June 21, 2021
The year of the deer?
On the other side of the aisle, Atlanta’s finals opponents, the Milwaukee Bucks, were contenders so none of this is new to them.
The Bucks will play in their second Eastern Conference finals in three years when they face the Hawks.
BUCKS IN SEVEN ‼ Milwaukee's going to the Eastern Conference Finals 😤 pic.twitter.com/KwKoT3ppK6 — ESPN (@espn) June 20, 2021
Everyone has become accustomed to their annual fantastic regular season followed swiftly by a forgettable playoff campaign. And that is the reason their run to the Conference finals ahead of both top two seeds in the East came as a surprise.
Nobody expected them to beat Brooklyn in the last round and they probably wouldn’t have if everyone was fit. But it doesn’t matter how they got here, the point is they’re here now, Giannis and his team cannot afford to screw this up. The path to their first NBA finals since 1974 couldn’t be clearer and this could finally be their year.
In conclusion, both of these teams have overcome some high odds to reach this Eastern Conference final, especially Atlanta. And although Milwaukee are the favourites on paper, Atlanta are clearly not a pushover.
This crazy season has proven that basketball can only be won and lost on a court, not on paper.