Hawks star Trae Young is just too good for Knicks

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young (11) shoots against New York Knicks' Julius Randle (30) and Taj Gibson (67) during the first half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Friday, May 28, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young (11) shoots against New York Knicks' Julius Randle (30) and Taj Gibson (67) during the first half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Friday, May 28, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau can change his lineup again. Maybe it will work. His players can convince themselves they’ll make more open looks against the Hawks next time. Maybe they will.

But none of that would help the Knicks with their biggest problem in this Eastern Conference playoff series. They have no idea what to do with Trae Young. He’s a puzzle they can’t solve. That’s why the Knicks are down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Young scored 30-plus points in Games 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks had enough of that. They sent extra defenders at Young in Game 3 on Friday at State Farm Arena. That’s just picking a different poison: Young sliced the Knicks with 14 assists and picked his spots to score 21 points in the 105-94 victory.

“He was just orchestrating everything tonight,” Hawks center Clint Capela said. “He really kept his composure. He did everything right.”

Young patiently probed New York’s defense until he found openings. He whipped one-handed passes from both sides. He set just the right pace for the Hawks. Young is in the playoffs for the first time, against a tough foe determined to stop him, and he’s making it look easy.

How has Young disarmed New York’s barb-wired defense?

“Because I’ve had so much preparation,” Young said. “I’ve worked extremely hard to get to this position. I’ve prepared, it feels like my whole life, for this stage and this moment. For me it’s about all the work I put in behind the scenes makes it easier for the game.”

It’s not supposed to be that way against the Knicks. Thibodeau has built his reputation on fielding strong defensive teams. This Knicks squad has plenty of long, physical defenders packing the paint and challenging shots. They’re being taken apart. The Hawks’ slight-framed, sensational point guard Young is just too quick, crafty and clever.

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) smiles after scoring during the second half. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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The Knicks couldn’t handle Young in Game 1. He scored repeatedly in the paint, beat them on the final play and shushed their fans at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks couldn’t slow Young in Game 3. They forced Young to give up the ball, so he spread the ball around to the many hot Hawks shooters.

The Knicks really didn’t slow Young in their Game 2 victory. Hawks reserves floundered in that game as Nate McMillan left Young and the other starters on the bench too long. McMillan changed his strategy for Game 3. Young played the entire first quarter, and McMillan staggered minutes for his starters. Either Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic were on the court for all but a few moments.

The Hawks led 27-21 with a minute left in the first period, but trailed 31-29 at the end because of a series of blunders. They led 39-38 when Young rejoined the starters 6:44 before halftime and went to work during a 19-6 Hawks surge to end the first half.

Young made a long 3-pointer late in the shot clock, then fed John Collins with perfect timing for a lob dunk.

Young drove-and-kicked to Collins for a 3-pointer, made a step-back jumper over Julius Randle and put Randle on skates before an alley-oop to Clint Capela.

Young and Bogdanovic pump-faked and passed back-and-forth before Bogdanovic made a 3-pointer.

Young whipped a pass cross court from the lane to DeAndre Hunter, who made another 3-pointer.

The Hawks led 58-44 at halftime. Young had 14 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers in 19 minutes. He finished the game with only two giveaways.

“When you have a guy who can find open seams, see them and make those passes, it just makes everything easier,” Collins said. “Defenses have to respect you and play you honestly when you have a guy who can make those plays.”

Especially when he can score, too. Young has taken some heat for his foul-seeking. That’s silly because drawing fouls is a skill, and Young is good at it. The Knicks complained about Young’s nine free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 1. They should have been more focused on how easily he skipped into the lane for baskets.

Young was 4-for-4 on free throws in Game 2 and still scored 30 points. Young was 3-for-4 from the line in Game 3. He’s shooting 5.6 free throws per game in the series, three less than his regular-season average. Young doesn’t need free throws to score against the Knicks.

He also doesn’t have to score to control the game.

“Tonight I needed to find the open man because (the Knicks) were more aggressive,” Young said. “It’s about reads.”

Young is shining in the spotlight while New York’s star shrinks from it. Randle’s fantastic regular season earned him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. He’s been awful in the playoffs.

Randle has missed 41 of 53 shots in the series. The Hawks have stymied Randle’s one-on-one moves and anticipated his passes. Randle was so bad in Game 3 that Thibodeau left him on the bench for most of the fourth quarter.

The Hawks were having fun by then. They got a little too loose. Their 18-point lead was down to 12 with five minutes to play. Their fans were getting nervous. The Hawks lost Game 2 after leading by 13 points at halftime. This wasn’t over.

Young righted the Hawks. He drove the lane and zipped a pass to Bogdanovic, who made the 3-pointer. The Knicks called a timeout. They were finished.

For two seasons, Young was a great young player on teams that didn’t have enough talent to win. The roster tear-down ended this season. General manager Travis Schlenk put good players around Young so he can flourish as a playmaker. The Knicks are seeing the results in the playoffs. They have no idea what to do with Young.