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Atlanta Hawks: Making the Conference Finals from outside the top four is rare, they make it look easy

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John Collins

You want to make the Conference Finals? Secure a top four seed.

In 1970-71, the NBA expanded to 17 teams and split into four divisions and two conferences: East and West. Since then, just 11 Conference Finals have featured a team outside of the top four seeds, but this year, the Atlanta Hawks made it 12.

1980s

The earliest experience of a conference finalist coming from outside the top four was in 1980-81, when the league had 23 teams. As such, only six teams in each conference made it to the playoffs.

The Phoenix Suns had the fourth best record in the league at 57-25, and the best in the conference. They sat three wins ahead of the LA Lakers, but because the Lakers didn’t win their division, the San Antonio Spurs technically finished with the second seed. The Portland Trail Blazers rounded out the top four but none of them battled for the chance to make the NBA Finals.

LANDOVER, MD - CIRCA 1977: Sam Lacey #44 of the Kansas City Kings in action against the Washington Bullets during an NBA basketball game circa 1977 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Lacey played for the Kings from 1970-81. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Sam Lacey
Image: Sam Lacey of the Kansas City Kings in action against the Washington Bullets circa 1977. Lacey played for the Kings from 1970-81

Instead, it was the fifth seed Kansas City Kings who took on the sixth (and bottom) seed Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. What made it more unusual is that neither team had a winning record, as they both finished the regular season 40-42. The Rockets advanced in a gentleman’s sweep, becoming the second team in NBA history to reach the Finals with a losing record, where they eventually lost to the Boston Celtics.

The third team to reach the Finals with a losing record wouldn’t have to wait long. By 1987, the league had added two teams to each conference in the playoffs, and the Seattle SuperSonics became the first seventh seed to reach the Finals.

A few years earlier, in 1984, the Phoenix Suns made a run to the Conference Finals from the sixth seed but couldn’t advance any further.

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1990s

The Phoenix Suns repeated the feat in 1989-90, with a team that was led by Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson, and were ably supported by Jeff Hornacek and ‘Thunder’ Dan Majerle. They managed 54 wins, but it was such a competitive season that it was only good enough for a fifth seed. They reached the Western Conference Finals but couldn’t get past the Portland Trail Blazers.

Dan Majerle
Image: Dan Majerle of the Phoenix Suns

In 1994, the five seed in each conference made a run at a championship, but neither the Indiana Pacers nor the Utah Jazz could advance to the NBA Finals. It might not have mattered if they had though, because Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets were on a mission that year.

They made the most of an absent Michael Jordan, who had led the Chicago Bulls to three straight championships before retiring for the best part of two seasons, and the New York Knicks couldn’t stop Olajuwon in the championship round.

What the Rockets did the following year, however, made even bigger history: 1994-95 saw them finish sixth after injuries and fatigue slowed their regular season success. Not only did they reach the Western Conference Finals, but the big man schooled a young Shaquille O’Neal in the championship series, and experience won out to lead Houston to back-to-back titles. Head coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously said after lifting the trophy: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon prepare to battle for a rebound during the 1995 NBA Finals
Image: Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon prepare to battle for a rebound during the 1995 NBA Finals

The Knicks would head back to the NBA Finals a few years later, and that 1999 team might be the biggest anomaly in the group of lower seeds overachieving. A season shortened by a labour lockout and a CBA negotiation meant a 50-game schedule was packed into a few short months.

As such, injuries and bad stretches affected teams so much more, and the Knicks landed in the eighth seed. With an injured Achilles, Patrick Ewing helped New York to wins over the top seeded Miami Heat and a sweep of Atlanta Hawks, though, his injury became too much against the Indiana Pacers and he personally bowed out of the playoffs.

Despite this, his team won the Conference Finals, but without the big man they had no answer for David Robinson and Tim Duncan of San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.

Modern Day

Advancing as far as the conference finals is harder in today’s NBA than in previous eras. Part of this has to do with teams being better scouted, but some of it has to do with every round of the playoffs being a seven-game series.

It was easier to cause an upset if you could win two out of three games, or three out of five, but besting an NBA team that won circa 60 games in the regular season four times, when lower seeds typically only have enough talent to win around 42-48, is quite the task.

Since the turn of the millennium, only one lower ranked team has made it to the Conference Finals: the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies.

Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Miller of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013
Image: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Miller of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013

The mantra of 'Grit’n’Grind' was built around this veteran squad because of their defensive intensity and ability to stay in games and outlast opponents with better talent. This was personified when they took on the young Oklahoma City Thunder core.

While star center Marc Gasol had only been in the NBA for four seasons, he was still a long-time professional basketball player with experience in Europe and at the Olympics, and he was only three years younger than 11-year NBA veteran power forward Zach Randolph. They also boasted 10-year veteran and former champion Tayshaun Prince, as well as benefiting from the scrappy defense of Tony Allen, who had been in the league eight seasons, and the 12 years of Keyon Dooling.

Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder
Image: Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder

This was a competent team with experienced individuals who knew how to win. The Thunder had talent but a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka - all under the age of 24 - meant they were still learning winning habits, despite a Finals run the previous year. The relative youth of Oklahoma City meant Memphis had the edge and won a spot in the Western Conference Finals to meet the San Antonio Spurs, who matched their experience with championship talent and ended the Grizzlies hopes of a Finals appearance.

What it means for the Hawks

If there are any concerns for the Atlanta Hawks and their NBA Finals hopes, it’s experience. The Milwaukee Bucks have been here for several years, building towards a championship and making deep runs into the playoffs. It hasn’t resulted in a championship yet, but additions to the roster and tweaks to the system has put them in the best position possible to win it all.

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John Collins scored the dunk of the night in Game 1 of the Atlanta Hawks' Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

On the surface, the Hawks look young. Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Clint Capela are the pictures on the posters, and they are all 26 or under. They bring guts and confidence to the party, which is often worn down in veterans who spend their career dealing with the heartbreak of not winning. But this core has no muscle memory of losing in the NBA playoffs, and their confidence permeates the locker room.

But when the going gets tough, you need to rely on veterans to get buckets and settle a team down in high pressure moments.

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Highlights of the first game in the Eastern Conference Finals between the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks.

And that’s the worst kept secret about the Hawks: they are deep with experienced leaders.

Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Solomon Hill and even Bogdan Bogdanovic have played on big stages in the NBA or at an international level. They can handle the pressure. And even Capela has had enough post-season runs with the Houston Rockets to the point that this is not new.

They might have struggled in the regular season due to injuries and a coaching style that didn’t suit the high expectations of the players, but the veterans are largely healthy and the young players are thriving under intern coach Nate McMillan.

History might not be on their side, but based on the second half of the season this team has had - going 27-11 since McMillan took over, and 9-4 in the playoffs - they could very well defy the odds and join the 1995 Rockets in a championship run from outside the top four seeds.

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