2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)
With plenty of help, Trae Young dazzles in Game 1 win over Bucks
Atlanta continues to show that its surprising postseason run is much more than a one-man production.
Typically there are two schools of thought in dealing with elite scorers in the NBA postseason. The first is, let that guy get his and make sure their other guys don’t beat you. The second, if someone on that team is going to beat you, make sure it’s not that guy.
The Milwaukee Bucks dropped out of one school and got expelled from the other Wednesday night.
The Bucks lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at home to Atlanta 116-113 because in trying to contain Hawks scorer Trae Young while holding his teammates in check, they exhausted options “a” and “b” and ultimately settled on “c.” As in “neither.”
Young did to Milwaukee in staking his team to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series what Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant had done for most of the seven games in their conference semifinal showdown. Young just did it with a release point and launch angle adjusted down about nine inches, based on his height differential from the Nets’ lanky sniper.
The Hawks point guard scored 48 points and added 11 assists, participating directly in 72 of Atlanta’s 116 points. He matched Kobe Bryant and LeBron James for the most points scored in a playoff game before turning 23. And he’s the first player ever in a conference finals game to score at least 45 points with 10 or more assists.
The 22-year-old from Oklahoma, the fifth pick in the 2018 Draft, has turned Atlanta’s unexpected 2021 postseason run into an extended coming-out party. Racing along the first playoff path of his young career, he averaged 29.1 points in eliminating New York and then Philadelphia, shushing a tough crowd at Madison Square Garden in the first-round opener before (without his best stuff) turning the snarly folks at Wells Fargo Center on the home team in Game 7.
So Young’s reputation, however brief and newly polished, preceded him into Fiserv Forum — and he did it again, searing the deer and reminding their fans that just because a playoff run is long doesn’t mean it’s always fun.
What’s important to remember about the Hawks, though, is that this isn’t a one-man production.
Young is their emerging name above the title, but he had — and he needed — considerable help. He got it again and again, especially late, from the likes of John Collins, Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari and even Solomon Hill. At various points they stepped up defensively, finished plays from Young, set up others and, for a team said to be on training wheels going this deep, showed as much or more poise than the experienced Bucks.
There’s more going on with the Hawks than a lone breakout star. Young had the shimmy Wednesday, but those teammates provided a lot of the shake.
“I feel like a lot of people haven’t watched us until now. Just to be frank,” said Collins, the power forward who scored 23 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and was plus-12 (compared to Young’s plus-10). “But I feel like we just put ourselves in position to do this all year because of our team make-up and our team structure, and what we’ve been able to do.”
In 13 playoff games so far, Atlanta has six road victories — including Game 1 in each series. It began the season 14-20, bad enough that coach Lloyd Pierce was fired, but has since gone 36-15 (.706) for the best record in the Eastern Conference since March 1.
That includes a 13-2 record in games decided by five points or less since interim coach Nate McMillan slid over into Pierce’s seat. There is something to be said for not knowing what you don’t know, and the Hawks appear as guileless as they are unfazed as the competition supposedly gets tougher and the bright lights hotter.
“I just hope that they’re maturing,” McMillan said, “and they’re showing that growth and they start to believe in what we are doing and how we practice and condition ourselves to play. We just try to play the game the right way, play with energy, play selfless basketball and always, we talk about that first and being connected. I think that’s what you’re seeing from these guys going down the stretch on both ends of the floor.”
If the Hawks looked rattled at all, it may have been in the early minutes. Then they settled in nicely. They were assertive and stingy in the third quarter, outscoring the Bucks 34-26. And they didn’t unravel when they slipped behind 105-98 with 4:18 left, Milwaukee and those in its arena anticipating a dagger at any moment.
No dagger came. Collins pulled down a missed 3-pointer and dunked it. Capela, on his way to 12 points and 19 rebounds, grabbed Khris Middleton’s errant 3-pointer. Then came a back-breaking defensive possession for the Bucks with less than two minutes to play: Young missed a long 3-pointer, Collins rebounded. Hill missed a trey as well, Capela rebounded. Finally, Collins hit from the left corner, cutting Milwaukee’s lead from four to one.
Two more Bucks misses, two more Capela rebounds. Then he grabbed another from the offensive glass, going back up after Young’s missed floater to give the Hawks their final field goal and a 112-111 lead at 29.8 seconds.
In the fourth quarter, Collins and Capela combined for 13 points and 10 rebounds, making all six of their shots. Most of all, they and their teammates — led by Young — reacted on the fly to Milwaukee’s defensive shift.
When the Bucks started with their dubious “drop” defense, Young exploited the space in the lane yielded to him by center Brook Lopez with a flurry of his floaters. When they tried to counter that by switching defenders hither and yon, Young picked apart the impromptu matchups by finding Collins, Capela or others.
So the Hawks don’t win without their point guard’s dazzling Game 1 performance. But they don’t win, either, with only that.
The Trae Young coming-out party is actually a party of eight.
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