Trae Young in first playoff game: Over the final 6:43, he scored or assisted on 21 of the Hawks’ 24 points.
Trae Young in his first playoff game: With the game tied and time flying, he danced around Frank Ntilikina, inserted for the express purpose of keeping Young from getting past him. With 0.9 seconds left, Young flipped home the winner.
It was the Hawks’ first playoff victory since April 24, 2017. Back then, Trae Young was trying to decide what to wear to his senior prom.
We pause for breath, lest we hyperventilate. The Hawks won a tremendous game Sunday night. They stole Game 1 on the road in their first playoff series in four years, though it wasn’t a last-second smash-and-grab heist. They jumped ahead by 11 points early. They trailed by seven in the second half, but they never looked cowed. Not of an almost-full Madison Square Garden. Not of Tom Thibodeau’s rough-and-tumble Knicks. Not of the small man wearing an orange hat and blue glasses sitting in Row 1. (That’d be Spike Lee, Morehouse alum.)
The Hawks weren’t scared because Trae Young, who’s listed as weighing 180 pounds, is never scared. Said Nate McMillan, his coach: “He’s small but he’s a tough kid. He’s not afraid of taking that shot. Tonight he got us Game 1.”
Said Lou Williams, seasoned sub: “He belongs. He’s a postseason player. I think he took a big step forward tonight in a leadership role. This is a coming-out party for him.”
On the game-winner, the Hawks had options. (“Obviously Trae’s going to be one of those,” McMillan said, archly.) They needed only one. Young took the ball and faced up on Ntilikina. He could have stepped backward, James Harden-style, and hoisted a 3-pointer. Instead he dribbled between his legs, faking left and going right. He beat his defender off the dribble and ducked down the lane.
He didn’t need a screen, though John Collins was supposed to supply one. “But he lost his shoe,” Young said. “I kind of waved him off. I didn’t want anything to get messy.”
Said Collins: “(Taj Gibson) grabbed the hell out me.”
Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young gestures during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
Credit: Seth Wenig
Credit: Seth Wenig
The Knicks’ Gibson, freed of Collins duty, made a late run to the perimeter. All that did was open the floor even more. “It clicked in my mind as soon as John lost his shoe,” Young said, and against the Thibs-coached Knicks this smallish guard popped free with the game on the line.
McMillan: “He took what the defense gave him, and they basically gave him single coverage.”
Young’s 7-footer arched over Julius Randle, who wasn’t close to blocking it, and sailed through the hoop. Then he put a finger to his lips, advising the throng to shut up and go home.
Said Young, who’d been treated roughly by the New York audience: “I was waiting for that F-you chant again.”
Then: “Fans can only talk. They can’t come out and guard me.”
Let’s be clear. There was more to this 107-105 victory than Trae Young. The young — no pun intended — Hawks went the distance with the brawny Knicks, but the home team couldn’t build a working lead. The Hawks were never more than a couple of possessions from retaking the lead. These NBA playoffs have a couple of months to run, but we’re not apt to see anything better than this fourth quarter for a while.
Alec Burks, a journeyman, scored 27 points in 26 minutes. Randle missed 17 of 23 shots and RJ Barrett needed 15 shots to score 14 points, but Burks spent the game looking like a latter-day Cazzie Russell, picking up the slack when Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere weren’t hitting. Each team made 42 baskets. The two teams together made but 17 turnovers. They might have played all night, but then Collins lost his shoe and Young made his move and the Hawks walked away deserving winners.
McMillan on guess who: “That’s a big shot with the game on the line. … I thought he did a great job of controlling the game.”
For three years, we’ve wondered — a little — about Trae Young. Was he one of those guys who scores a lot of points but whose team doesn’t win? Was he anywhere near as good as Luka Doncic, against whose career path Young’s will always be measured? Did he shoot too much? Did he and Lloyd Pierce, fired March 1 to make way for McMillan, ever get along? If not, why not?
And always this: How will this 180-pound guard do when it’s playoff time and the body checks get serious? Will he be bullied out of his game? Will he stand tall — or as tall as a 6-foot-1 guard can — when it matters most?
It would be wrong to say Trae Young went out there a nobody and came back a star. He has been a big deal for a while. He’s a bigger deal now. He turned off the lights on Spike Lee’s team. In his first playoff game, he authored one of the greatest moments the Atlanta Hawks have ever known.