Hawks avoid the worst with Trae Young, need him at best for playoffs

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) works against New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) works against New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

The basketball gods have cursed the Hawks all season, but this was the unkindest gut punch of them all.

The Hawks keep winning with lots of good players on the injured list. Doing it without their one great player would be too much to ask. It seemed as if they would have to try when Trae Young writhed on the court at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night and clutched his left leg above the ankle.

ExploreHawks have 13 games left, then the playoffs

Fortunately for the Hawks, it appears they won’t have to contemplate their promising season going kaput because Young can’t play. MRI results of Young’s ankle revealed a Grade 2 lateral sprain. That indicates a partial tear of the ligament, according to Harvard Medical School, with a recovery period of 3-6 weeks.

The last scheduled game for the Hawks is May 16, so it appears Young has a chance to return by the end of the regular season. The postseason play-in tournament for teams that finish seventh through 10th in the conference standings is set to begin May 18, nearly four weeks after Young’s injury. The first round of the NBA playoffs is scheduled to start May 22.

Now the Hawks and their supporters will be on ankle watch. The Hawks (32-27) stood fifth in the Eastern Conference after the overtime loss at the Knicks on Wednesday. They should still make the playoffs with Young out for a few of their final 13 scheduled games. But they need Young feeling right for the postseason to have a good shot at sticking around.

If he’s not, then the Hawks’ ceiling lowers from advancing to the second round and challenging an Eastern Conference contender, to maybe winning a couple of games in the first. If Young is hobbled for the playoffs, their floor drops from making a top East team sweat in the first round to being relegated to the dreaded play-in tournament for the final two of eight playoff spots.

I hope Young is back to full strength for the playoffs. It wouldn’t be a total loss if that’s not possible. Young is among the best players in the world, and he’s still only 22 years old. Nearly every key Hawks player is under contract for next season. They can run it back with essentially the same team.

Still, it would be a major letdown if Young isn’t at his best for his first postseason as a pro. I have some selfish reasons for saying that. I’m looking forward to seeing the Hawks back in the playoffs. Young gives them a chance to upset higher-seeded teams, and he puts on a great show.

But I also want Young at his best so that he has a real chance to shut up the doubters who have dogged him since his days at Oklahoma. I root for Young to spite his annoying haters. As I wrote early in his rookie season, I’m anti-anti-Trae Young.

Young’s critics dismissed him as a stats-hunter on bad teams during his first two seasons. This season he’s proved he can be the lead guy for a winning outfit. The next step is doing it in the playoffs, where it gets much harder. It would be a bummer if Young isn’t able to give it his best shot.

The Hawks are 3-2 in games that Young doesn’t play, including three consecutive victories. Those three teams were a combined 78-96 before Thursday’s games. It’s a testament to their roster depth that the Hawks have beaten lesser opponents without Young. The challenge for the Hawks is that there aren’t many of those type opponents remaining on the schedule. Only three of their final 13 games are against teams that are out of the playoff (or play-in) race.

The Hawks on Friday host the Heat, who are chasing them in the standings. The Bucks come to town Sunday. Milwaukee is third in the East and already has beaten the Hawks twice (Young missed one of those games). The Hawks have two games scheduled next week at the 76ers, who were No. 1 in the East after Wednesday’s games. They have a game each against the Suns (second in the West entering Wednesday) and the Blazers (sixth).

It’s possible that the best Hawks opponents, more concerned with health than playoff seeding, will rest key players as the playoffs get closer. But even players on bad teams are going all-out at this time of year to prove their value. And the Hawks also will be tested by the frequency of games.

The condensed schedule for the pandemic season means they are set to play 13 games in 24 days. The game at the Knicks was the fourth of six in a span of nine days. After a day off Tuesday, the Hawks will play six games over nine days. The pace of games would be demanding under normal circumstances. The COVID-19 protocols and injuries make it more taxing for the Hawks.

They’ve been clawing through their schedule all season with good players on the injured list. Against the Knicks, that group included De’Andre Hunter, Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell, Kris Dunn and Cam Reddish. It’s not clear when Reddish and Dunn will return. They’d help the defense. Getting back the other injured players would allow the Hawks to keep scoring enough to stay afloat.

Young obviously is the primary reason the Hawks ranked No. 8 in scoring efficiency before Thursday’s games, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). They are even better on offense when Young is on the floor. When he isn’t in the lineup, the Hawks score at one of the worst rates in the league. That’s held true even after the Hawks replaced Rajon Rondo with a better backup point guard, Lou Williams.

Young is a scoring force on his own. Entering Thursday his 25.3 points per game tied for 13th in the league and ranked fifth among point guards. Only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted more free throws per game. That’s a big reason why, despite Young’s dip in accuracy on two-point field goals from last season, his points per shot attempt ranks fifth among NBA point guards who carry a big scoring load (per Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time).

Playmaking is where Young separates himself from nearly every other scorer in the league. Only Russell Westbrook and James Harden are responsible for a bigger share of their teams’ assists. Only Harden does that while also scoring efficiently. Harden might be the only player who consistently gets his teammates easy shots more often than Young,

You can make a case that Clint Capela is the most indispensable Hawks player. (Another worry: Capela limped off the floor on Wednesday because of a sore back.) The Hawks still can put up points without Young if enough other players are healthy. Without Capela on the back line, their defense collapses. He also helps their scoring efficiency with a league-leading 4.9 offensive rebounds per game.

Capela’s defense and board work are important. But the Hawks hang their hat on their offense, and that’s where Young takes them to another level. They are at their best when Young is scoring, manipulating defensive schemes and feeding his teammates for high-quality shots. That’s the formula that will make them a tough out in the playoffs.

Get well soon, Trae.

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