2021 Playoffs: East First Round | Knicks vs. Hawks
Trae Young embraces moment in playoff debut
Far from being intimidated by the rabid fans at Madison Square Garden, Trae Young delights in tormenting them and their Knicks in Game 1.
There’s shushing, and then there’s SHUSHING!
What the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young did in silencing the New York Knicks and their raucous fans in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series Sunday was that second, much louder kind.
When a visiting player takes over down the stretch not just of any game but of the first playoff game he’s ever played … when the building in which he does that isn’t just any arena but Madison Square Garden … when the crowd being quieted isn’t just pent up from 15 months of a global pandemic but eight years of postseason drought, that’s more than just an index-finger-held-up-to-the-lips moment.
The Hawks’ unflappable point guard broke out the muzzles and the duct tape, too, against the 15,000 fans so boisterously stirring echoes of Knicks playoff thrillers past.
Catching the ball in the backcourt with 9.8 second left in a game tied at 105-105, Young pushed forward, veered to the right around New York’s Taj Gibson and Frank Ntilikina, evaded Reggie Bullock as he pinched in from the wing and tossed up a floater that dropped at the 0.9-second mark.
Young earned the chance to respond in pantomime to fans who, many of them by his telling, weren’t just vocal but vulgar. Hey, it’s New York, right?
“I don’t know, I’ve always looked at it as I’m doing something right if I’m affecting them with my play that much,” Young said after scoring 32 points with seven rebounds and 10 assists. “Fans can only talk. They can’t guard me. They’re not out there playing. For me, it’s just a part of the game.
“As I hit the floater, it felt like everybody got quiet.”
In that instant, Young became the first player to hit a game-winner in the final five seconds of his postseason debut since the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade in 2004.
Said Atlanta teammate John Collins, whose shot at setting a screen for Young ended when he ran out of one of his sneakers: “He did his thing. He made MSG cold, we go home happy.”
🧊 32 points for Trae Young
🧊 13 in the 4th quarter
🧊 10 assists
🧊 Game-winning floater with 0.9 left
— NBA (@NBA) May 24, 2021
The NBA’s only player to average at least 25 points and nine assists this season, Young had put up 24.7 points and 12 assists in three games against the Knicks this season. Trouble was, the Hawks lost all three. This time, showing more poise than the home team long on playoff newbies, Young and the Hawks picked apart New York’s stingy defense with superb pick-and-roll execution.
Still, the 6-foot-1 point guard, wrapping up his third season, saved his best for last. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter as the lead bounced back and forth five times with three ties. Young had a pair of rebounds, three assists and, after failing to get to the foul line at all for three quarters, went 9-of-9 from there over the final 6:43.
That should have given Spike Lee, Tracy Morgan and the other VIPs and celebrities enjoying their return to MSG a sense of where things might be heading.
“He lives for this,” Collins said. “He has supreme confidence in his game. I feel like he wakes up in the morning coming after these moments. He’s built for it and I’ve seen him do it time in, time out in his career.”
Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Young should have had more assists, if only teammates hadn’t missed open looks they’d normally make. That wasn’t a fear on Atlanta’s inbounds play near the end, especially after a like-minded, cold-blooded scorer in the Hawks’ huddle reminded Young what to do.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t pass the ball.’ That was my advice,” said Lou Williams, the veteran who won three Kia Sixth Man of the Year awards from 2015-19 with his instant offense and conscience-free shooting.
“You can kind of trick yourself into thinking you need to make a play. Hey, go win the basketball game.”
That seemed within the Knicks’ grasp as the game unspooled. After a shaky first quarter, they outscored Atlanta by six over the final three. Alec Burks, 10 seasons in, played like an overnight sensation with 27 points, the biggest chunk of the 64 points New York got from its bench.
Knicks All-Star big man Julius Randle, beset by double-teams, was vowing by night’s end to do better in Game 2 but still finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, hitting what seemed to be a key 3-pointer with 2:04 left. But the Knicks’ aggressive defense could only bother the Hawks into six turnovers, with just two charged to the guy who had the ball in his hands all night.
Ultimately, the chanting crowd fared no better. If Young didn’t merit the level of bile they heaped when the game began — not like notorious MSG nemeses such as Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller — he seems certain to rate that villain treatment now. Starting as soon as Game 2 Wednesday (7:30 ET, TNT).
“Uh-huh. I definitely know the history of players coming in here, being hated,” Young said. “I take that as a compliment, to be honest with you. Playing the road, it feels like everybody is against you besides your team. It feels like it brings you together.”
Expect the Knicks to crowd around him now, too, more than they tried in Game 1. Getting the ball out of Young’s hands figures to be New York’s top defensive adjustment. Young likely will try some of his own.
“The moment wasn’t too big for him,” Williams said. “He was ready to go. He belongs. He’s a postseason player and he showed it. This is a coming-out party for him.”
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