‘Believe’ harder than ever for Hawks with Young hurting

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter during a time out in the final minutes of 113-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 27, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter during a time out in the final minutes of 113-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, June 27, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

I’ve previously noted that the only thing more unsatisfying than losing an NBA playoff series because of missing open shots is losing them because of key injuries. Well, the Hawks missed easy looks at the basket during winning time of Game 3 Sunday against the Bucks, and an injury to point guard Trae Young threatens to derail them in the Eastern Conference finals.

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Losing the series because of a wall full of bricked shots and an injury to their star player would be a cruel way for the Hawks to end their season. It wouldn’t feel fair, but fair outcomes aren’t always possible in the NBA playoffs. The Hawks might become the latest team this postseason to see their fate largely determined by bad injury luck.

The Hawks might have won Game 3 on Sunday if Young were healthy. He wasn’t, and they didn’t. They are down 2-1 to the Bucks in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 at State Farm Arena on Tuesday. The Hawks said an MRI performed Monday on Young’s right ankle revealed a bone bruise in his right foot.

Young is officially listed as questionable for Game 4. It usually takes weeks for a bone bruise to heal. Young’s limp and half-speed play after his injury, and his inability to check back in near the end of the game, suggest he won’t be himself even if he can play in Game 4.

That’s obviously a big problem for the Hawks. Nearly everything they do offensive is built around Young coming off screens, getting into the lane and making plays. The defense must react, and that opens up the floor. Young creates plenty of options with his scoring and playmaking talent.

The possibilities are much more limited for the Hawks if Young can’t accelerate off the screen in the first place. That was the issue for Young after his ankle injury. The Hawks faded to a 113-102 loss with one of the NBA’s best young stars unable to help as much as he can.

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Hawks guard Trae Young is tended to on the floor with a possible ankle injury during the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks guard Trae Young is tended to on the floor with a possible ankle injury during the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks guard Trae Young is tended to on the floor with a possible ankle injury during the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“He’s our best player, so if you (have to) play without him, it’s rough,” Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari said after Game 3. “But it’s been a tough season in terms of injuries for everybody. Especially this team, we (rarely) played a game with a full squad. But everybody stepped up and we had a pretty good season.

“So we’ve been doing that. In case somebody is down, somebody else stepped up and played a great game so we need to keep doing that.”

Young is the one sure scoring source for the Hawks. He scored 48 points in Game 1 at Milwaukee and the Hawks won by three points. He scored 35 points in Game 3 and they lost by 11. The Bucks have three go-to scorers. The Hawks have one, and he’s hurting.

Young had his worst game of the postseason during the blowout loss at Milwaukee in Game 2. He was having another brilliant performance in Game 3 before bad luck struck late in the third quarter.

Young tried to plant his right foot to run back on defense after his bad pass resulted in a turnover. His foot landed on referee Sean White’s right foot, just out of bounds. Young left the game and was limited when he returned.

ExploreYoung’s ankle, and perhaps a series, turns on a ref’s foot

“There’s times he carries us, but we’ve got to pick up the slack a little bit,” Hawks forward Kevin Huerter said after Game 3.

That didn’t happen in Game 3, when Bucks wing Khris Middleton outscored all Hawks with 20 points in the fourth quarter. One bright spot for the Hawks is they still created plenty of open shots in the period with Young out of the lineup or limited while on the court. The problem again, was making those shots.

The Hawks were 7 of 17 from the field in the fourth quarter, including 1 of 7 on 3-pointers (excluding one attempt after the game was decided). According to NBA tacking data, the Hawks were 3-for-7 on “open” shots in the fourth quarter, defined as a defender within 4-6 feet from the shooter. The Hawks were 0-for-4 (all 3′s) during the quarter on shot attempts with no defenders closer than six feet.

Young was 2-for-4 on his open looks in the fourth quarter. His teammates were 1-for-7.

“Obviously, with my ankle being the way it was, we needed them to be more aggressive,” Young said of his teammates. “I think guys were making the right plays and taking the right shots.”

ExploreHawks playoff game times, results

All postseason the Hawks have lamented missing too many of the open looks they generate. The sample size is 15 games now, so maybe that’s just not going to change. And if Young isn’t at full speed for Game 4 then the open shots aren’t likely to be as plentiful.

The best hope for the Hawks to score with Young limited may be Bogdan Bogdanovic’s improved health. A sore knee slowed him late in the Sixers series and early in this one. Bogdanovic looked to have more lift in his legs for Game 3 but was 3-for-16 from the field.

“Wide-open looks,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “I’m willing to trust he will knock those shots down.”

If that happens, and if Young somehow can be a threat while playing on the bad ankle, then the Hawks still could use one more scorer to match Milwaukee’s Big Three.

Huerter had the game of his life in Game 7 against the Sixers with a team-high 27 points. He’s scored 32 points in three games since then. Huerter still is playing well overall, but the Bucks don’t have as many defensive mismatches for him to seek out.

The Hawks could go to Gallinari and John Collins more often for post-ups. Gallinari scored 18 points in Game 3 and Collins had 23 in Game 1. But a lot of their opportunities are generated when the Bucks defenders switch on picks, leaving them facing smaller foes. Milwaukee wouldn’t have to switch as much if Young’s sore ankle makes him less of a threat on pick-and-rolls.

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Danilo Gallinari drives to the basket against Giannis Antetokounmpo during the 2nd quarter in game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Danilo Gallinari drives to the basket against Giannis Antetokounmpo during the 2nd quarter in game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Danilo Gallinari drives to the basket against Giannis Antetokounmpo during the 2nd quarter in game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

If the Hawks find some unexpected sources of points, the Bucks can keep up. Milwaukee’s top scorer, Giannis Antetokounmpo, might be the league’s best player and its Big Three all can score without drawing a crowd.

No need to set picks for Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holliday. Just give them the ball, space the floor and let them go to work.

Said McMillan: “It’s really a three-headed monster over there. All of those guys are excellent isolation players. . . . It really challenges your defense to cover them one-on-one and make them shoot tough shots, but they are capable of making those shots.”

The Hawks don’t have that luxury. They have one great player who scores and makes things happen for his teammates. Now Young is hurting and the Hawks still aren’t making enough open shots.

Ending their postseason run under those circumstances would be a sad, dispiriting conclusion for the Hawks after they made so many outsiders believe they could keep going all the way to the NBA finals.