Chess match with Heat’s Erik Spoelstra a ‘fun challenge’ for Trae Young

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Even with the No. 8-seed Hawks struggling against the No. 1-seed Heat to start the first-round playoff series, Trae Young has enjoyed trying to anticipate Miami coach Erik Spoelstra’s next move.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Hawks

“We’re down 0-2 in the series, but this has probably been my most fun and challenging series that I’ve been a part of so far,” Young said Thursday at practice. “Just because of just that, playing that chess match game with Spo, just knowing how good of a coach he is, but I’m trying to think ahead of him and he’s doing the same with me and it’s a fun challenge. And it’s something I’ve got to learn and grow, and I think this is just another step and challenge for me in my progression.”

Young gets another shot Friday in Game 3, this time back home in Atlanta.

Already, the 23-year-old two-time All-Star starter has gleaned plenty from Spoelstra and Miami’s potent, physical defense. First, the Heat haven’t allowed the Hawks to play in the paint, forcing them to make shots. Second, the Hawks must improve at making adjustments throughout the game, as Miami continues to adjust its defense.

ExploreClint Capela ruled out for Game 3 of Hawks-Heat series

The third and fourth go together – ball security is key, and though a little creativity is good, doing too much can lead to more turnovers, something the short-handed Hawks simply can’t afford.

“I felt like maybe I was trying to be too creative and trying to get the ball in certain creases and things like that,” Young said of if Miami and Spoelstra’s strategy forces him to get creative. “So, yes and no. Because they do play good defense, and you can get behind the defense sometimes, but I’ve just got to be a little bit more solid and just making the easy play and not try to do it all sometimes.”

The Hawks averaged 24.6 assists per game in the regular season, with Young accounting for 9.7 of those, compared with 11.9 turnovers per game. Their turnovers per game was both a league best and a franchise record.

“Having to win three straight to get into this position is a big deal for us, and we know how to turn it around. We've got to. And we're at home now. So it's going to be fun."

- Hawks star Trae Young

In Game 1 vs. the Heat, the Hawks racked up 18 turnovers, with 16 assists, and in Game 2 they had 19 turnovers with 21 assists. The Heat have done a good job of not letting Young get on a roll, another thing Young pointed out of Spoelstra.

Young had eight points in Game 1, a 115-91 blowout loss, going 1-for-12 from the field, 0-for-7 from 3-point range and 6-for-7 from the line, with six rebounds, four assists and six turnovers. In Game 2, a significantly more competitive game which the Hawks lost 115-105, Young got more shots to fall, finishing with 25 points (10-for-20 FG, 2-for-10 from 3-point range, 3-for-4 FT), but had 10 turnovers, adding six rebounds and seven assists.

“Spoelstra’s obviously a top-15 coach of all time for a reason, switching up his defenses,” Young said. “He’s not going to let me just outscore them, and he’s going to make it tough. So it’s really my job to try to outthink him in certain ways. So I’ve just got to, and our team has just got to figure out how to make adjustments on the fly because they do a lot of adjustment things on the fly, too.”

Because he’s such a wizard on offense, Young often faces traps, double-teams and box-and-1 defenses as teams do everything they can to keep the ball out of his hands.

What will make a big difference for the Hawks is if they can get better spacing and movement on offense to capitalize.

“What Trae is facing, pretty much what he’s been facing all season long, they’re going to try to take him out with pressure,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “Good defenders. We have to make them pay for the coverage that they’re playing at.

“... They are aggressive, they are active, they try to force turnovers in their switching defense and their trapping defense. And you have to have the proper spacing, which I thought at times we did (in Game 2), but we turned the ball over. So I think it’s a little bit of both. But it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. We’ve got to be better at it.”

If the Hawks can get more shots to fall, that will help stretch the defense, too. They shot 27.8% from 3-point range in Game 1 and 30% from 3-point range in Game 2. In the regular season, the Hawks shot 37.4% from beyond the arc, the second-best clip in the NBA (behind only the Heat at 37.9%).

On a team with so many shooters, getting back to their own gym and baskets could help (plus, playing in front of their own fans). The Hawks finished the regular season on a 19-3 run at State Farm Arena, averaging 121.4 points per game, shooting 49.8% from the field, 38.9% from 3-point range and 82.9% from the line, adding 26.8 assists per game with only 11.4 turnovers. Also at home, they beat the Hornets on April 13 in their first of two must-win play-in games, shooting 52.1% from the field, including 50% from 3-point range (16-for-32), with 31 assists and 12 turnovers.

There’s obviously a lot on Young’s shoulders, with the Hawks seeking a spark in this series, but it’s nothing he can’t handle, wing Kevin Huerter said.

“If you’ve seen us all year, a lot of our offense always goes through him,” Huerter said. “It’s not, at this point, we’ve changed up how we’ve run our offense, and now it’s putting too much on him. This is how we run our offense. A lot of it starts with him, and everybody kind of plays off how he’s playing that game and him trusting everybody and getting off the ball and obviously making shots when it’s his turn.

“But they’ve come out trying to take him out of the game. There’s been a lot of teams that have done that this year and haven’t had success with it. … He’s one of the elite offensive players in this league. I think he’ll figure it out.”

Ball security is key for the Hawks in Game 3, and that starts with Young, as the guy running the Hawks’ offense.

They’ll aim for better spacing and execution against a stifling Heat defense, which puts pressure and often two defenders on the ball. The Hawks are in a tough position, with starting center Clint Capela (right knee hyperextension) already ruled out for Game 3, leaving Young without his main pick-and-roll partner. But power forward John Collins, playing through a right ring finger sprain and healing up from a right foot strain, looked better in Game 2 and took Capela’s spot in the starting lineup, sliding over to center as he often did before the Hawks acquired Capela.

Young may be struggling to start the series, but he’s learning from Games 1 and 2 and at least gets to play Games 3 and 4 back home.

“Obviously, I’m not going to have 10 turnovers, I’m going to be better,” Young said. “And just gotta be better at giving ourselves a chance to get up a shot. And I think part of it had to do with our spacing and some of the timing of the lobs with some of our guys. It’s a lot. It’s OK. We have to deal with some adversity.

“Having to win three straight to get into this position is a big deal for us, and we know how to turn it around. We’ve got to. And we’re at home now. So it’s going to be fun.”