The Hawks need Trae Young to save them

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

BOSTON - The Hawks will be ready for the Celtics this time. Boston ambushed them in Game 1, but now they know what’s coming. The Hawks had time to regroup since that beat down on Tuesday. They’ll give a competitive effort in Game 2. Winning will come down to making winning plays when it matters most.

That’s where Trae Young comes in. The Hawks have no chance to win Game 2 on Tuesday if their best player is less than good. Boston has a lot of mismatches. The Hawks need to leverage their one clear advantage in the Eastern Conference playoff series.

Young is the best playmaking and scoring point guard in the world when he’s sharp. But it’s been a while since he’s been at his best in the playoffs. Young was far from the only Hawks player to stumble against the Celtics in Game 1. He’s the lead guy, though, so he more than anyone Hawks players needs be better in Game 2.

That means no more unfocused passes from Young. The Celtics don’t usually get out in transition off turnovers a lot, but they converted four of his bad passes into fast break chances in Game 1.

Young can’t drive into the lane with no clear plan. The Celtics have too many bodies waiting for him and his teammates stand and watch.

Young needs more off-ball movement to set up catch-and-shoot 3-point tries. He’s excellent at making them but had zero chances in Game 1.

If Young can do all that, and the Hawks play better defense as a team, then they’ll have a chance to win Game 2. That would put some pressure on the heavily favored Celtics. If Young doesn’t play up to his potential, then the Hawks will lose Game 2 and any real hope of winning this series.

Young has delivered great playoff performances against favored opponents on the road before. He said that gives him confidence he can do it again, even if the Hawks rely more on young players now than they did while going to the East finals in 2021. Young said he’s taking to heart coach Quin Snyder’s desire for him to be more assertive with creating offense in Game 2.

“I still want to continue to be getting my teammates involved and look for them but, obviously, I’ve got to be more aggressive,” Young said Monday.

The series is best-of-seven, but a loss on Tuesday would all but finish the Hawks.

Per Odds Shark, 282 NBA teams have trailed 2-0 in best-of-seven series. Only 20 came back to win. It’s happened six times since 2012. One of those teams had Kevin Durant and James Harden and two others had LeBron James.

Young isn’t on the level of those players yet. He’s just 24-years old, but it’s possible he will never make that difficult leap from star to superstar. The Hawks don’t need him to do that to win this series. They just need Young to do what he’s already done before.

The memories of his brilliant play during Atlanta’s surge to the East final have faded. But Young also was great during last year’s play-in tournament. The Hawks faced elimination games against Charlotte and Cleveland. Young wouldn’t let them lose.

It’s been a slog for Young in the postseason since then. He had a miserable first-round series against the Heat in 2022. The Hawks beat the Heat last week to earn a spot in the playoffs, but Young was just OK in the second half.

Young has more help now than he did against the Heat last year. Dejounte Murray became his backcourt partner this season. Murray was on the attack against the Celtics in Game 1. Young wasn’t, and Atlanta’s offense suffered for it.

“Sometimes the best way to get other people shots is for you to shoot, and then (opponents) have to account for you,” Snyder said. “And I want (him) to be aggressive on every level. I think you can get to the rim and make plays for other people.”

Young can cause problems for the Celtics if he plays that way. It’s the formula for an upset victory in Game 2. Then the series would return to Atlanta tied 1-1 with the Celtics carrying a burden as big favorites.

The four underdog teams that won their playoff openers over the weekend all got strong performances from their star players. Julius Randle (Knicks), Jimmy Butler (Heat), Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) and the Lakers (duo of James and Anthony Davis) all lifted their teams to victory. The Hawks need Young to do the same.

They didn’t get nearly enough from their best player in Game 1. He’s the engine that makes Atlanta’s offense go. The Hawks stalled as Young missed his first six shots and committed four turnovers in the first half. Young played more under control after halftime but took just one shot in the fourth quarter and didn’t score.

Young wasn’t good enough to give the Hawks a chance to win Game 1. He’ll get his chance at redemption in Game 2. The Hawks will play Boston close. To win, they’ll need Young at his best.