‘Fearless’ Trae Young dominates in first playoff series

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) points to New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) after scoring in the first quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) points to New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) after scoring in the first quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

When the Hawks found out they would face the Knicks in the first round of the NBA playoffs, interim coach Nate McMillan sent Trae Young a text message telling him he was built for this.

“... And he is,” McMillan said Wednesday night, after Young and the Hawks eliminated the Knicks in Game 5. “He’s just built for this time of the season, with the confidence that he brings to the floor, his skill level, as far as scoring the basketball and creating opportunities, it’s really tough to game plan against him. He just has to continue to take what the defense is giving him. I thought he did a really good job in this series of managing out on the floor.”

ExploreMark Bradley: Utter domination by the Hawks

The Knicks’ defense, of course, ended up giving him quite a lot. Young dominated this series from start to finish, from his last-second, game-winning floater in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden to his 36-point, nine-assist performance in Game 5. He finished things off with a flourish Wednesday night, taking a bow after hitting his final shot of the night (one from the logo, at that).

“He didn’t tell me nothin’ I didn’t already know,” Young said of the message McMillan sent him, with a smile. “I have confidence in myself. I know I’m built for this, and I’ve put in a lot of work, and I know the work I’ve put in, so it was nothing I didn’t already believe in myself. But it’s a good thing. ... In all seriousness, when a coach believes in you and gives you that type of confidence, it’s big.”

Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in his first playoff series. Although the Knicks swept the Hawks in the regular season, with an almost fully healthy team surrounding him and McMillan at the helm, Young picked the Knicks apart, the narrative that he’s not “a winning player” silenced.

With him paving the way, this series wasn’t particularly close. The Hawks lost Game 2 on the road after one bad half, their single hiccup in five games. But they were in the driver’s seat of games 3, 4 and 5, with Young controlling the tempo.

He poses ample matchup problems, which is part of what makes him so difficult for defenses to nail down. If the Knicks tried to trap Young, he got off the ball and found a teammate, but he had plenty of success finding his own shot, as well.

“You need that in the playoffs,” McMillan said. “... He’s just fearless out there. He’s very confident in what he brings to the floor, and you need that this time of the season. So showing his growth, getting his teammates involved while continuing to be aggressive, puts a lot of pressure on that opponent to figure out ways to stop him.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He was by far the best player in the series, but the thing that stood out to teammate Clint Capela the most was how steady he was throughout (Capela is one of the few Hawks with ample postseason experience).

“That was definitely big time out of him, coming out, first playoffs, and the consistency that he showed. … It was tremendous, his focus.”

Next up, the Hawks will face No. 1-seed Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which will begin Sunday. By winning a playoff series, they’ve already surpassed the team’s original goal of simply making the postseason — but Young isn’t ready for this to end.

“Obviously I feel a lot better because we’re winning, and I’m such a competitor. I want to win so much that this feels good, but I’m not satisfied,” Young said. “I’m not satisfied with just getting to the second round. I’m not satisfied with where we are. I know what this team is capable of. Like I’ve been saying all year, we have a squad and a team that can surprise a lot of people. But we’re not going to surprise ourselves because we know what we’re capable of.”