The Knicks were taking control of the game while Hawks star Trae Young sat on the bench. TNT announcer Brian Anderson noted that coach Nate McMillan usually brings Young back at about the seven-minute mark. Anderson’s words hung there for a few seconds as viewers everywhere wondered the same thing as he likely was wondering.


Why was McMillan sticking with his rigid substitution pattern Wednesday when the moment desperately called for being flexible? Why did Young stay on the bench for nearly six minutes as a tie game turned into a 10-point Hawks deficit? Why was McMillan coaching as if it were an ordinary game in January instead of Game 2 of an Eastern Conference playoffs series?

There was no good reason for the Hawks to have one of the NBA’s premier offensive players on the bench as a playoff game slipped away because they couldn’t score. That’s why McMillan has no good answer for why he let it happen. The Hawks return to State Farm Arena on Friday with the best-of-seven series tied 1-1, but they had a prime chance to win the second game in New York.

After the 101-92 loss, McMillan said that eight-plus minutes was plenty of time for his starters “to get back into the game and get control of the game.” If he’d put his best players back on the court sooner, maybe the Hawks wouldn’t have to come back from so far behind because they wouldn’t have lost control. Saying the starters still had time to rally almost makes it sound as if falling behind by 10 points was part of the plan.

McMillan also said his substitution patterns were “fine” and that 35 minutes is a heavy load for his starters. The next day McMillan said his starters have played “as many minutes as necessary” and that he was right to rest them for as long as he did after halftime. If McMillan is unwilling to waver from his plan, no matter the circumstances, it’s going to cost the Hawks in this series.

McMillan got away with strictly following his blueprint in Game 1. The Hawks trailed by six points when Young went to the bench with 2:21 to go in the third quarter. They were down by three when Young checked back in with 6:58 to go. The Hawks stayed in the game largely because Young’s backup, Lou Williams, scored 11 points during that span.

McMillan didn’t get away with sitting Young for a spell late in Game 2. The score was 72-72 when McMillan pulled Young at 2:21 of the third quarter. The Hawks were down 88-78 when Young returned with 8:34 to go (at least McMillan didn’t wait until the seven-minute mark this time).

Williams was bad during that stretch, and he wasn’t alone. Hawks reserves barely could get into their offensive sets against New York’s defensive pressure. They couldn’t create any good shots. Young is among the best in the league at getting teammates quality looks. The Hawks badly needed him on the floor as Game 2 slipped away.

McMillan’s counterpoint: The Hawks already had given back a 13-point advantage in the third quarter with Young on the floor.

“It wasn’t one unit,” McMillan said Thursday. “Both units struggled.”

One struggled more than the other. The Hawks outscored the Knicks by five points for the game with Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic on the floor. De’Andre Hunter (plus-5) was the only other Hawks player with a positive plus-minus.

Young and Bogdanovic played 35 minutes in Game 2. Clint Capela, Hawks defensive anchor, played 36. Young and John Collins led the Hawks with 35 minutes played in Game 1. McMillan said that’s not the upper limit for his starters.

“I thought our starting unit went deep into the third quarter (in Game 2), and I needed to give them a breather in the fourth quarter, and they were able to finish that game somewhat strong,” he said.

It’s fine that McMillan wanted to give his second unit a shot to lift the Hawks. It didn’t take long to see his bench guys didn’t have it. It took longer for McMillan to get Young and Bogdanovic back in the game. The Hawks rallied to tie the score before fading over the final five minutes.

Young played 27 minutes through three quarters of Game 2. He could have played the entire fourth quarter and ended up with 39 minutes. Young played 35 minutes per game during his All-Star season of 2019-20 (the number would be higher if hadn’t sat late in 10 blowout losses).

Those were low-stakes games during a tanking season. The stakes for the Hawks now are win or go home. The latter becomes a stronger possibility for the Hawks if Young doesn’t play more than 35 minutes per game.

“I see how my guys are playing and what energy that they have and the rest that they need,” McMillan said.

That’s a fair point. McMillan has more information on those variables than anyone else. He’s in direct communication with the players. He can see when they just don’t have the juice to carry out their roles. But that cautious approach backfired on McMillan in Game 2.

Young playing tired was a better option than whatever Williams was doing (Young could have preserved energy on defense because the Knicks inexplicably weren’t targeting him.) Bogdanovic shooting 3′s with heavy legs promised a higher success rate than Gallinari clanking open shots.

The Game 2 loss can’t be pinned solely on McMillan’s second-half substitutions. Young was too loose with the ball during New York’s third-quarter comeback. Hawks bench players must be a lot better. Collins committed some bad fouls, played only 14 minutes and produced zero points.

McMillan compounded those problems by having Young on the floor for only 35 minutes. It’s routine for star players to approach 40 minutes in playoff games. After two games this postseason, 14 players were averaging at least 38 minutes. This is the time of year when coaches maximize floor time for their most important players, especially when the other options aren’t working.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gets it. He saw enough of point guard Elfrid Payton’s struggles and rode Derrick Rose for 39 minutes in Game 2. Rose scored 10 of his 26 points in the third quarter, when he played all 12 minutes. Rose is 32 years old with five knee surgeries on his ledger. Thibodeau recognized the desperation of the moment and pushed Rose to his max.

McMillan should do the same with his much younger and healthier point guard. Young’s minutes should be close to 40 if he’s not injured, in foul trouble or exhausted. He shouldn’t be on such a set schedule that a TV announcer can predict that he’ll stay on the bench as the Hawks fall behind late in a playoff game.