Trae Young’s will, if not his shooting, push Hawks onward

It never gets old: As in New York the series before, Hawks guard Trae Young waves goodbye Sunday hostile fans after closing out the Philadelphia 76ers on the road. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
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It never gets old: As in New York the series before, Hawks guard Trae Young waves goodbye Sunday hostile fans after closing out the Philadelphia 76ers on the road. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Want to know one reason the Hawks took out the East’s top-seeded team in Game 7 in Philadelphia Sunday against all common sense and reason?

See the 76ers Ben Simmons down the stretch Sunday. When the camera would catch his countenance, uncertainty seemed etched all over it. Reticence infected his game, as he passed up multiple invitations to score, even once giving up the ball rather than flushing an easy dunk. And in the final moments, so unsteady is his work from the free-throw line he had to watch the conclusion from the bench.

And then see the player Simmons guarded for great stretches of this series. The one who is 10 inches shorter and not deeded nearly so many of the physical favors enjoyed by his defender.

Trae Young shot the ball wretchedly Sunday, making just 5 of 23 shots. But his face only showed the determination to make the next one. He didn’t connect on a lot of shots, but he made his last one, an audacious 28-footer that put the Hawks up six with two-and-a-half minutes to play. And he was making free throws – the Hawks last two points of the night – as Simmons watched.

And, then, as he did in New York the series prior, Young cheerfully waved goodbye to the crowd that just moments before had been cursing him and throwing water bottles on the court. He eats up hostility like it was cotton candy.

When Hawks coach Nate McMillan was asked about his team’s utter unwillingness to shrink from the moment, how it just won on the road for the fifth time in these playoffs, closing out two series in northeastern snakepits, he answered, “It starts with our point guard.”

“Trae plays that style of basketball,” McMillan said. “Even though tonight the ball the ball didn’t fall for him, he continued to be aggressive which put pressure on the defense to have to guard him. He also fed the hot hand. He got the ball to Kevin and allowed Kevin to make plays (Huerter finished with a team-high 27 points), and some other guys.”

Young has had five 30-plus-point performances in this postseason, but Sunday was not one of them. He finished with 21 and 10 assists. And the other side of the ledger were six turnovers.

The fact that the Hawks were able to close out Philadelphia and advance to the Eastern Conference final with their star guard shooting just 22% from the field speaks volumes for how far this bunch has come. Just when you thought that everything for the Hawks relied upon Young’s slender shoulders, they win a game like this.

Think of the comfort that must give Young, knowing that he doesn’t have to carry the weight every night, even here late in the playoffs.

“It’s a great feeling,” Young said. “I always want to make plays for my teammates but it’s the nature of the game, some nights it’s not going to be your night and you’re going to need some people to help you.”

Games like Sunday’s, Young switches to survival mode.

“I know I just have to find a way,” he said. “My shot was off tonight, my right hand and shoulder giving out, trying to fight through it and push through it (something to keep an eye on going forward).

“Shots weren’t going tonight but my teammates showed up and made plays. For me, I just tried to find them. And when it was the fourth quarter try to lock in and make some plays for my team down the stretch. They were making plays for me the whole game. I wanted to come through at the end and help them out a little bit. I know I didn’t shoot the ball great today, but they definitely made plays. It was a total team effort tonight.”

Young refused to allow the shooting woes – he shot just 39% for the Philly series – to get in the way of enjoying the most special victory yet that he’s had as a Hawk.

Following the game, as the mother of all Father’s Day gifts, he presented his jersey to his father, Rayford. And afterward recalled all the support his father provided to make a moment like Sunday possible.

“I remember taking those two-hour drives from Norman, Okla., to Dallas to play on my AAU team. And flights to Kansas City to play on my AAU team,” Young said. “He was there from all those days until now. We were going to playoff games when I was a kid, and for us to have a playoff game on Father’s Day I wanted to make it mission to come out and get a win and give him my jersey.”

And as Simmons and the rest of the 76ers wonder where they might go from here, Young seems to have a very clear, very willful notion about his future with the Hawks.

Sure, it was rough in the beginning, the Hawks going 49-100 over Young’s first two years. “It took a lot of losses to get here,” he said.

“For us, guys who have been here since the rebuild, this feeling is a lot better than it’s been. We know it’s our first year in the playoffs together and it’s only the beginning, too.”

For emphasis, he added, “That’s the best part about this whole thing: This is only the beginning.”

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