To make playoffs, short-handed Hawks need Trae Young to be great

‘I feel like we can still win with the guys we have’
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) walks up the court against the Charlotte Hornets during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Credit: Mike Stewart/AP

Credit: Mike Stewart/AP

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) walks up the court against the Charlotte Hornets during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Trae Young needs to be extraordinary for the Hawks to advance to the playoffs. It will take more than only that, but if Young isn’t great, then those things won’t matter. Young is the one who can make the parts add up to a greater whole and deliver two upset road victories in the Play-In Tournament, starting Wednesday in Chicago.

That wouldn’t be too much to ask of Young under normal circumstances. The Hawks are 3-0 in Play-In games with Young, including two road victories as underdogs. Young was good in all those games, but now he’s just returning to the lineup after seven weeks on the injured list following hand surgery.

Young said he’s ready to play “close to my (usual) minutes” after ramping up over the final three games of the regular season. That would be a big boost for the Hawks. I think it just won’t be enough because three key players are out with injuries. Hawks decision-makers made matters worse by declining to convert sharpshooter Vit Krejci’s two-way contract, making him ineligible for the postseason.

The Hawks will go to Chicago with Young in less-than peak condition and with only four other rotation-quality players available.

“It’s tough, obviously, but you just play the cards you are dealt,” Young said. “I’m a player, so I’m going to do my job and make sure I go out there and try to give my best and try to get our team to win. I can only do what I’m capable of and what I control.

“I feel like we can still win with the guys we have. That’s my mentality, and I’m going to go out there and try to do it.”

The Hawks have a better chance with Young. He’s helped them beat long odds before.

Young was the best player on the floor when they won two series as underdogs to advance to the 2021 East finals. The Hawks won two Play-In games to make the 2022 playoffs with Young as the catalyst. Last year, Young led the Hawks to an impressive Play-In victory at Cleveland to advance to the playoffs before giving the top-seeded Celtics trouble in the first round, including a sensational performance at Boston in Game 5.

The issue for the Hawks now is that two players who helped during that run, Onyeka Okongwu and Saddiq Bey, are out. Worse for the Hawks: Jalen Johnson is out, too. He’d become a third dribble-pass-and-shoot playmaker to go with Young and Dejounte Murray. Johnson is the team’s most athletic forward and its most versatile defender.

The Hawks have a puncher’s chance because of Young’s return and the nature of the Play-In. They don’t need to be good for a series. They only need to win two games. If the Hawks beat the Bulls, then they’ll play the loser of Heat-76ers on Friday. The winner of that game earns the No. 8 seed and a seven-game series against the top-seeded Celtics.

The short-handed Hawks will look to Young, their lone All-Star, for a lift. He was still getting his legs back in the past three games, but his offensive impact was obvious. Young totaled 30 assists in 80 minutes while shooting 58% from the field (6-for-13 on 3-pointers). The Hawks will be dangerous if Young plays his usual minutes with his typical efficient scoring and playmaking.

They’ll have to turn it on in Chicago because there’s little momentum going into the postseason. The Hawks’ six-game losing streak is tied for the longest in the NBA, though an asterisk is attached to it. Coach Quin Snyder emptied his bench for the final three games because the Hawks were locked into 10th place.

The Hawks had won six of seven games before that with two victories over the Celtics. That winning stretch came with Young out. The Hawks were 24-31 before his surgery and 12-12 while he was recovering. The schedule was weaker, but the team’s defense was better.

The best version of the Hawks is the one with Young as elite offensive engine and adequate defender.

“You look for where you can fit in and be yourself,” Young said of his view from the sidelines while on the injured list. “If things are going well, where you can fit in and be the extra spark to helping with that’s going well? If something’s not (going well), how can you fix it when you come back?

“I don’t dive too deep into it. I’m adjustable. My game is adjustable. I can play whatever style with whoever and I can fit in and make myself and whoever is around me stand out. It’s just about making sure I have the wind to do it and just (be) in rhythm with everybody.”

The Hawks are good one through five: Young, Murray, De’Andre Hunter, Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Things will get dicey for Snyder when he calls on others. Garrison Mathews and Wesley Matthews are veteran journeymen. Kobe Bufkin, Trent Forrest and Mouhamed Gueye still are trying to prove they belong in the NBA.

The Hawks just don’t have enough good, experienced players available to make it through to the playoffs. You don’t need as many of them in the postseason, but five isn’t enough. The Hawks are a flawed team when all players are available. Now they are too short-handed to win two high-stakes road games against better teams.

If I end up being wrong about that, it will be because Young is extraordinary. It’s happened before. We’ll see if Young can do it again.