Trae Young’s ability to perform in the playoffs has been questioned from the moment he entered his name in the 2018 NBA Draft. Young put up huge numbers as a freshman coming out of Oklahoma while drawing some optimistic comparisons to Stephen Curry in terms of his playing style, but skeptics saw a player who was too small and too weak to hold up under the pressure of postseason basketball.
For all of Young’s talent as an on-ball creator and pull-up shooter, the thought was that he would be targeted relentlessly on the defensive end over a seven-game series when the opposition had more time to game-plan for his specific strengths and weaknesses. Small guards who lack strength have a history of struggling in the playoffs. Even as Young proved he could be massively productive in the NBA over his first three seasons, there would always be doubts about how his game would translate to the postseason until he actually got there.
Maybe Young was thinking of those critics as he walked off the court with his finger pressed against his lips after a brilliant playoff debut on Sunday. Maybe he was simply staying in the moment and shushing the Madison Square Garden fans who chanted “F—- Trae Young” earlier in the night. In the first postseason game of his career, Young was an absolute star, finishing with 32 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds and hitting the game-winning shot to lead his Atlanta Hawks to a 107-105 win over the New York Knicks in Game 1 of their first round playoff series.
The series between the No. 4 seed Knicks and No. 5 seed Hawks was seen as a coin flip in Vegas, but New York was still the heavily favored to win a tight series in the media (guilty). The Knicks are the team that won 16 of their last 20 games entering the postseason, and the one led by the front-runner for Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau. New York seemed ready to pose a major challenge for Young: they had big, physical perimeter defenders leading a unit that finished No. 4 in the league in efficiency. While the Knicks’ guard play has been a mixed bag all season — starter Elfrid Payton drives fans mad, but Immanuel Quickley and Derrick Rose have exceeded expectations — it was hard to envision a Thibodeau team getting cut up by the smallest player on the floor. That’s exactly what happened in Game 1.
The Hawks ran ‘double drag’ and ‘Spain pick-and-roll’ action for Young repeatedly, and the Knicks could not stop it. Young created 40 points out of the pick-and-roll on the night, per Synergy Sports, showcasing every possible pass while utilizing his deadly floater to keep the Knicks defense off balance.
In crunch-time, Atlanta ran the Spain action — where the offense screens the help defender in drop coverage — on three straight possessions, and Young found his teammates for buckets each time down the court.
Atlanta Hawks Spain Pick-and-roll — 3 straight possessions in clutch offense, 3 straight buckets, all assisted by Trae Young
– Trae lob to Capela
– Trae skip to Bogdanović open corner 3
– Trae behind the back to open De’Andre Hunter pop 3 pic.twitter.com/8zwghvzsUL
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) May 24, 2021
With the game on the line, Young decided to do it himself. Atlanta spread the floor around Young let him work without the help of a screen. As the Knicks tried to trap him, Young burned the defense to the cup for the go-ahead bucket on another floater.
That’s when Young shushed the MSG crowd.
This hasn’t always been a great season for Young. Atlanta stumbled to a 14-20 start and fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on March 1. Young felt like more of the problem than the solution, often standing around and waiting for the ball to come back to him rather than utilizing his gravity as a scorer to make life easier for his teammates. Everything changed for Atlanta when Nate McMillan took over as head coach — which happened to coincide with the roster starting to get healthy. The Hawks were tremendous over the final stretch of the season, with Young playing a more mature game even if he ended the year with numbers that were slightly down across the board compared to last year.
Young has always had supreme confidence in himself dating back to his high school days on the grassroots circuit playing alongside Michael Porter Jr. on Mokan Elite. If there will always be questions about his lack of physicality in the postseason, he certainly seems to be undaunted by big moments.
Hawks’ Trae Young on silencing the Knicks fans at MSG w/ Game 1 game-winner: “If they hate me that much, I’m obviously doing something right. At the end of the day, fans can only talk. They can’t guard me.”
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 24, 2021
Thibodeau and the Knicks will come back with an adjustment for Game 2 and the rest of the year. A terrific debut hardly answers every question about Young in the playoffs — this is merely one of many future postseason games he’ll have to prove himself in. In terms of a playoff debut for a 22-year-old, though, it’s hard to imagine how this could have gone much better.
Young is electric as a live dribble passer. He can and will shoot from anywhere on the floor off the dribble or from a spot-up. He has wonderful chemistry with center Clint Capela already, giving him the dependable lob target he missed before this season. Young may be small and he may struggle mightily on defense, but don’t overlook his ability to takeover games in the playoffs just because of that. At least for one game, Young looked as good as ever in the postseason.