Trae Young has passed every test for Hawks. Now he faces a new one

MIAMI—The best part about watching Trae Young’s career up close is getting to see him work. He’s a great entertainer. The next best part is seeing Young’s game evolve. Young quickly proved he’s a good NBA player, opponents adjusted accordingly, and Young countered. Now he’s among the best young stars in the league.

Young has passed every test with the Hawks. I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles the latest one. Young is coming off the worst playoff performance of his short career. The Heat blew out the Hawks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first round series. Young has never been down 1-0 in a series.

There is no way Young will play as poorly in Game 2. The question is whether Young can be good enough to win a series against an opponent that is well-constructed to slow him. The odds are against it. But overcoming long odds is how Young has reached the point of being the primary focus of the Heat’s defensive plan.

Young is one of the best players in the world despite usually being the smallest man on the court. His inspired play lifted the Hawks to victory in two playoff series last year and through the play-in tournament this year. When Young says the Hawks will be ready for Game 2, I believe him.

The Hawks said they mostly need to play with more intensity in Game 2. To that end, coach Nate McMillan gave players a light day on Monday. A long film session was followed by an optional workout at FTX Arena. Most Hawks regulars decided to rest. After playing two high-intensity games in less than 48 hours, the Hawks should have more energy for Game 2.

But the Hawks also need a better plan to attack Miami’s switching and trapping scheme against Young.

“Whenever teams are trapping and doing things like that, it’s not necessarily just me,” Young said. “I have to make sure my teammates are in the right place. It is more about getting guys to the right place and making the right reads. It is a collective unit when a guy gets trapped.”

That’s true. Young’s teammates weren’t moving off the ball enough in Game 1. Bogdan Bogdanovic is best at it, but he doesn’t play as much with Young since moving to a bench role. The Hawks might benefit from those two sharing the court for more minutes in Game 2.

Young needs to do his part, too.

“It starts with him recognizing what the defense is doing, making sure that our guys get to our spots and we get organized and execute,” McMillan said Monday. “This is not something that is new. This is something we’ve been doing all season long.”

The Hawks are built to win by scoring a lot of points with Young at the controls as playmaker and shot-maker. That formula made them one of the best offensive teams in the league this season. That’s why it was surprising to see them struggle to even create open looks in Game 1.

The Hawks had 86 possessions before garbage time and scored 76 points, per Cleaning the Glass. The Hawks weren’t much better defensively, but no team could make enough stops to overcome an offensive performance that bad. Everything was off: spacing, pacing, passing, shooting.

To win the series, the Hawks need some great performances from Young as the engine of the offense. In Game 1, he sometimes over-dribbled while looking for favorable switches. That was getting the Hawks nowhere and, besides, there aren’t many favorable matchups to find against the Heat.

Few teams have as many good, switchable defenders as the Heat. Miami is the only one with Bam Adebayo, a do-it-all defender at center.

“If you don’t have a guy like Bam, it’s very difficult to do some of these schemes,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Miami’s defense is a difficult problem for Young and the Hawks to solve. They’ve done it before. They played the Heat twice this season with Adebayo in the lineup and produced offensive efficiency near or better than their season average. Miami turned up the pressure in the playoffs and the Hawks wilted.

Credit the Heat for a dedicated, determined and coordinated effort by all five defenders. That’s what it takes to stop Young. Every Heat player on the floor took their turns checking him. Teammates were ready with help before Young could drive.

“Keep him in front,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said of the plan for Young. “He is constantly breaking down defenses and causing you to help. If you don’t help, it is a layup or a floater. If you do help, he is hitting the right guy every single time.”

That’s what we’re used to seeing from Young. He couldn’t do it in Game 1. He missed 10 of 11 shot attempts and had more turnovers than assists. Young is a tough, smart and prideful player. He’ll be better in Game 2.

That’s what the Heat are expecting.

“He’s going to explode, but we just gotta stay patient and stick with what we do, because at the end of the day, he can make shots and get (you) a little bit frustrated,” Heat point guard Kyle Lowry said. “But if we stick with the game plan and he makes shots, then you just go on and move forward.”

Young is so good he can ruin the best game plan. The latest test is whether he can do it in this series against a great defensive team with versatile personnel.