MILWAUKEE – Trae Young shook off Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best defenders, and found himself with plenty of space between himself and Bucks forward Bobby Portis.
And then, with more time on his hands than he knew what to do with, the Atlanta Hawks’ superstar guard decided to do a little shimmy before releasing a 3-pointer, like so many of his other shots in the Hawks’ 116-113 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, that softly settled into the bottom of the net.
“I mean, I had a lot of time,” Young, who finished with 48 points, seven rebounds, and 11 assists in 41 minutes, said later, smiling. “I had plenty of time.
“I was a little tired, so I had a split second to take a deep breath and knock it down.”
The fact that Atlanta has progressed this far has surprised almost everyone. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it has become only the fourth team in NBA history to win three Game 1s on the road in the playoffs, joining the 1999 New York Knicks, 1989 Chicago Bulls, and 1981 Houston Rockets.
And the Hawks have done it because of the confidence instilled in them by their star, a player who is never afraid to make a play with style, regardless of the situation.
If there was any doubt about that, his shimmy should put it to rest.
“I was wondering, as you were, ‘Did he really just do that?'” Kevin Huerter, a Hawks guard, stated.
The Hawks did the same, coming back from a seven-point deficit with 4:18 remaining when Holiday, who finished with 33 points and 10 assists in 42 minutes, buried a 3-pointer to give Milwaukee a 105-98 lead.
It was the type of moment that a veteran team, playing at home and having gone back and forth with its opponent, would normally use to put the game away.
Instead, the Hawks stormed back, going on a 17-8 run to close the game and secure the win – a run that was almost entirely powered by Young, who either scored or assisted on 13 of those 17 points, including four free throws inside the final 20 seconds to keep the Hawks ahead.
And after the Bucks missed a pair of potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds – one by Pat Connaughton, which was a particularly ugly air ball, and another by Khris Middleton, who finished the game 0-for-9 from beyond the arc – the Hawks were forced to play Game 1 on the road in the Eastern finals for the second time.
“To be honest, Trae is a brave dude,” Hawks forward John Collins said. “Those are the moments he lives for.”
“I’m not sure what else people need to see from him in the playoffs to realise he’s a big-time player.” He is enamoured with the bright lights.
“I forgot about the shimmy, but that’s Trae’s fault.” That’s his style. Keep shimmying, my boy, if it helps him make the shot.”
That’s pretty much the attitude the Hawks have maintained throughout the playoffs. When asked how they’ve been able to keep surprising people in these playoffs – especially on the road, where Atlanta is now 6-2 in this postseason – there was essentially a collective shrug, followed by the same response: Why not?
“I believe we can go as far as we want,” Young stated. “Unless you put the [NBA] Finals on it, I don’t think there is a ceiling.”
“I have faith in this team, and we all have faith in each other.”
It would be insane for them not to believe in themselves at this point, given what the Hawks have accomplished thus far. They’ve done it despite De’Andre Hunter, their best perimeter defender, being unable to play due to season-ending knee surgery, and despite Bogdan Bogdanovic, their second-best perimeter scorer after Young, playing at less than 100 percent for the final few games of the series against the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as in Game 1 against the Bucks, due to right knee soreness.
Despite this, the Hawks continue to find ways to win. Collins had a great game for them, scoring 23 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Clint Capela had 19 rebounds, including a huge offensive rebound and putback with 29 seconds left that gave Atlanta the lead for good.
And, of course, Young provided an endless stream of plays for the Hawks. In the first half, the Bucks went out of their way to allow Young to shoot from the midrange and take floaters. Young himself stated that it was a wise strategy after struggling to make those same shots during a regular-season meeting between the two teams.
Young, on the other hand, couldn’t miss to start the game, scoring 25 points in the first half alone. And as he got going, the Bucks were forced to bend toward him, abandoning centre Brook Lopez, who played only 20 minutes, in favour of smaller lineups to try to switch against Young and the Hawks.
But that didn’t work either, in part because after holding Young to two free throws in the first three and a half quarters, Young hit ten in the final few minutes of the fourth.
“It’s not easy [to win],” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said after scoring 34 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing out nine assists. “It never gets easier.
“At the end of the day, we have to come to work and do our jobs.” We must improve.”
In these playoffs, the Hawks have now elicited the same reaction from three consecutive opponents. As a result, they now hold a one-game lead in the Eastern Conference finals.