Illawarra look to have punched their post-season ticket in the most satisfying of ways, climbing to fourth spot on the ladder with a 106-95 win over arch-rivals Sydney on Sunday afternoon.
As the NBL finals snakes and ladders game continues, the Hawks risked dropping to seventh on the ladder with games against top two sides Perth and Melbourne looming had they come up 0-2 from a road double in the penultimate round of the regular season.
After falling three points short of the Breakers in New Zealand on Friday night, the Hawks showed few ill effects of the short turnaround, jumping the Kings on their floor and leading by 20 mid-way through the second term.
Skipper Tyler Harvey finished with 21 points and six assists, while Gary Clark was the closer with his 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Ever-reliable Sam Froling had an 11-11 double-double, with eight boards coming on the offensive glass.
The Kings hung around, but never got close to re-taking the lead the Hawks resurgence under Justin Tatum continuing into the final round of the competition, and a return to Wollongong for their final home outing against Perth on Thursday.
A win there would ensure the Hawks cannot finish lower than sixth and would see finals basketball, something that seemed a pipe dream when Tatum took the reins on the back of a 2-7 start in November.
As the not-interim-for-long coach said post-game, it was a feat only the club locker room believed was possible.
"Everybody in the NBL has doubted us from the jump," Tatum said.
"I understand we started from 2-7 this season, we were 3-25 last year. We sit at home, we watch other games and we hear that the top six is going to be everybody but us, and we were fourth at that time.
"Our motivation is major because the only people that believe in us is the Illawarra, and us in that locker room. That's all the motivation that we need and that's what drives us every day.
"Nobody's going to lay down at this time, and we don't look at as 'we beat Perth the last two times'. It's tough to beat a team three times, but if we play this well, this unselfish, this is what we're going to build off of.
"Going into Thursday [Perth], today is our motivation, to build off this win and how we played to get this win in this environment. We came and gave four quarters of great effort, being consistent and playing unselfish.
"That's my main high, because I was so excited how the guys played unselfish, and just how hard they played."
Time to give Tatum the rubber stamp?
It's not difficult to make the argument that Tatum should be named NBL Coach of the Year, and not purely on the fairy tale factor that's so compelling about the the Hawks finals pitch.
Illawarra has gone 11-6 under Tatum, a win percentage of 64 per cent. It's just a hair off Wildcats coach John Rillie's 65 per cent and, like the rest of the coaching fraternity, well off Melbourne United boss Dean Vickerman.
It's a better win-loss ratio than Tasmania's Scott Roth, with no other coaches currently above 50 per cent. There's always more nuance to such arguments than the the numbers alone illustrate, but it's convincing.
It's now a matter of when, not if, the Hawks unveil him as the club's next long-term head coach. All parties have been reticent to make a public call until the Hawks ultimate play-in fate is known.
It would be a helluva way to celebrate Illawarra's last home game of the season against Perth in Wollongong on Thursday given the belief Tatum has cultivated in a previously down-trodden playing group and fan-base.
"My position being an interim head coach here and learning how to be a head coach in the NBL, I have to trust the game," Tatum said.
"When I take J-Rob (Justin Robinson) out of the starting position and bring him off the bench, he has to trust me that this is the best for the team. If we talk to Tyler about shot selections, we have those difficult conversations that we need to have to have games like this to win.
"It's just those guys trusting my experience and me putting them in the right situation for our team to win. That's all I talk about, is our group, what they can do individually is going to help our group.
"No matter what shots that they make, the defence that they do, the rebounds, we've got to find a way to put it together. Those guys have trusted me to explain what their role is and allow them to flourish in it.
"I think the main growth is how we finish games and how we can play for 40 minutes. Even under my tenure, we were only playing like 27 minutes, 30 minutes of good basketball and it goes up and down from there.
"I think tonight we played 40 minutes of good basketball. That's big to me."
Hawks a masterclass in selflessness
Harvey was locked in from the tip and had 15 points at 4-7 from long range in the first half. In what was perhaps the most telling factor in the Hawks first-half dominance, he also had six assists.
He finished with 21 at 4-10 from deep, but it was his performance early that set up the victory, with Clark closing the show in the final term to finish with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Justin Robinson had six dimes with his 10 points, while across the board the Hawks had 15 assists on 22 first-half field goals and finished with 26 dimes on 31 buckets, with six players notching two or more assists.
"Having 26 assists is unbelievable," Tatum said.
"Our guys have really been patient seeing where the extra pass is going to come from because we knew Sydney was going to throw a couple of jump defences for us.
"We didn't want to settle for a tough shot or a shot that guys feel that they can make if they were in the gym by themselves. We want to see what was the best shot.
"With [Clark's] experience, he sees the game and the game is slowed down to him. It took him some time in the beginning to adjust to the FIBA rules over here and the way to play in the NBL.
"Now he's in pure form and we ride off that experience. That's the main thing for us, and he's capable of making any type of shots, closing the game with made free throws.
"He's our 1a, and Tyler's our 1b one b as to when we need a shot and who we go to."
Hickey stepping up down the stretch
While the Hawks have been firing on all cylinders, much of Tatum's success has hinged on his ability to get the best out of the second unit.
Will Hickey was the case in point on Sunday, playing 15 minutes, including large stretches of the fourth quarter, to finish with 11 points and four rebounds.
It came at a near perfect 7-8 from the foul-line, with three of his rebounds coming at the offensive end.
"He's relentless competitor and he's always ready," Tatum said.
"We've been building confidence in him for the last three or four games as you can see, he's been coming in for major spurt minutes, so today was major for him.
"We felt that he was in the right spots when they were trying to double G (Clark) and Sam, and he got into the open area, made his free throws.
"You can't take a guy out when he's giving you that much energy and nothing has dropped. He's worked for the last couple of games to gain that trust from me."