Trae Young not worried about playoff picture amid COVID struggles

Trae Young would have none of it.

The Hawks guard immediately rejected any talk of his team falling out of the playoff race during their recent struggles with a COVID-ravaged roster. The Hawks lost their fourth of their past five games Wednesday, a 131-117 loss to the Bulls, since the latest wave of the coronavirus over swept the team and required a roster filled mostly with players on 10-day contracts.

Young does speak from experience - not of playing with a roster that currently has only three players who were on the opening-day roster but with a team digging itself out of an early hole. You’ll remember the Hawks started last season with a 14-20 record, fired coach Lloyd Pierce and then went on a run all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, where they pushed the eventual NBA champion Bucks to six games.

Following Wednesday’s loss, the Hawks are 15-19 and 12th in the Eastern Conference. They are a half-game out of a postseason play-in spot and three games out of a top-six spot.

“No, no, I’m not worried about no playoff picture slipping away,” Young said Wednesday. “We started out 14-20 last year and won eight games straight. This league is all about runs. It’s all about runs and who is hot. If you can get hot at the right moment. I ain’t worried.”

The defeat at the hands of the Bulls was the second of back-to-back games against one of the strong contenders in the East. It also was the start of a six-game trip that will pit them against the Cavaliers, Trail Blazers, Kings, Lakers and Clippers.

Currently, the Hawks have a roster of 26 players, with 12 players out because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and two players out with long-term injuries. Nine players are on 10-day contracts. They have four players - Young, Cam Reddish, Clint Capela and Skylar Mays (two-way) deemed rotational players, the minimum allowed by the league not to postpone a game. It likely will take more than a week for the Hawks to return to full strength.

While the Hawks were losing to the Bulls for the second time in three days with the minimum of four rotational players available Wednesday, the Heat had their game against the Spurs postponed because of an insufficient number of available players. That has been a source of frustration and confusion for the Hawks organization.

“That is something that we really can’t control,” Capela said of the number of games played with a depleted roster. “It doesn’t matter who is on our roster or if we have enough guys. We play. It’s tough, especially when you play a team like that (Bulls), a team from your conference, a good team, a game that really matters and you don’t have enough guys from your roster to go against them. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s something as players that we cannot control, but it is really frustrating.”

Young was the first player to enter the health and safety protocols when he tested positive Dec. 18. He missed three games, including the Hawks’ Christmas Day contest against the Knicks, and returned in nine days. He practically went straight from second negative test to the court. Hawks coach Nate McMillan has relied on Young to play heavy minutes with little choice.

Young played 40 and 33 minutes, respectively, in the two games against the Bulls following his return.

“I’m willing to do anything to help my team win,” Young said. “I’m willing to come back and play after not doing anything all day and find a way to test, just like the last game. I’m willing to do anything to help this team win. … If Nate wants to play me the whole first half, the whole third quarter and just sit me a little bit in the fourth quarter, I’m willing to do whatever it takes.

“My body will tell me. He asks me throughout the game if I’m feeling good. With my adrenaline, I’m feeling good in the games, especially early. That’s really not a factor for me. If I feel some type of way of my body and how I’m playing, I’ll definitely let Nate know.”