Trae Young is back, much to the chagrin of playoff favorites

Trae Young did not look ofin itself. The All-Star point guard still showed his usual playmaking precision early in Friday’s play-in tournament final against the Cavaliers. A timely hit-ahead feed to a streak of teammate there, a perfectly weighted jumping pass slipped between two defenders to a rolling big man there. When it came to large things, but – the more obvious ways Trae typically burns defense – he fell short.

With 3:30 left in the third quarter, the Hawks’ conductor had missed 10 of his 14 shots, including six out of seven 3-point attempts. He had only taken one free throw and committed four turnovers, which took some of the brilliance from his eight assists. While watching stepbacks and runners go awry after launching them over an active and extremely long-limbed Cleveland defense made whole by the return of Jarrett Allen, Young at times looked like a boxer who could not quite find his range – a bit unsure of best angle of attack.

In the final minutes of the third quarter, however, he found it. Then it was just a matter of time before he delivered the knockout punch.

With the East’s last playoff spot on the line, Young dragged off and rained haymakers down the stretch, toppling in by 28 points during the final 15 minutes of the match. He outscored the Cavs alone in that time, and took complete control of the affairs to drive the Hawks to a 107-101 victory that officially got their ticket to another straight trip to the playoffs.

That trip was anything but assured three months ago, when a Hawks team expected to fight after last season’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference final, sat on a dismal 17-25, which was among the league’s biggest disappointments. Honestly, it also didn’t seem like such a safe thing most of Friday.

Carried by the return of their All-Star centers after missing more than a month with a broken finger, the Cavs sprinted out to an early double-digit lead behind hot shooting from Lauri Markkanen, the downhill playmaking of All-Star Darius Garland and the punishment. defense of Caris LeVert, who sought every opportunity to chase Young. Cleveland went into the break with a lead of 10 points; Atlanta hit break after just watching starting center Clint Capela be helped off the floor after a mistake he made on Cavs rookie Evan Mobley resulted in him hyperextending his right knee.

Despite the deficit, Capela’s absence and Young’s shaky start, the Hawks did just what they needed to stay close and prevent Cleveland from running away. They knocked the offensive glass as shots did not fall early, rebounding nine of their own misses in the first half. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who had been a fighting time decision with a sprained left ankle, stabilized the offense in the second quarter, scoring 14 of his 19 in the frame. Reserve Delon Wright screwed up the defensive pressure on Garland and limited the Cavs’ offensive engine to just a 9.5-minute field goal attempt spent guarding him, according to NBA.com matchup data.

Second-year big man Onyeka Okongwu stepped in for the injured Capela, playing 18 strong second-half minutes full of stiff screens, rebounding and disruptive inner defense; he also undoubtedly made the most important non-Trae game of the game for the Hawks, slipping across the field with just under a minute left in the fourth to break a LeVert lob intended for Mobley. If he does not hit that rotation to meet Mobley at the edge, it’s probably a dunk that reduces Cleveland’s deficit to one. Instead, Atlanta gets the ball three back with 53 crosses left:

The rest of the Hawks did what they had to do to stay afloat until Young could get off track, and then he did the rest: cracked traps and dusty stores on switches to get into the lane for floats, creating space with his step back , and happily pulled up from Shaker Heights. He finished with 38 points on 13-for-25 shooting with nine assists in 40 minutes; he played with the NBA’s No. 6 regular season defense, leaving the Cavs flat on his back and staring up into the lights, bringing an unpretentious end to what before the injury became just too much to bear, one of the NBA’s most hilarious surprise stories.

Villains, however, are not much for feel-good endings. And then: the brave, over-performing upstarts go home while the worst 164-pound man in the NBA and his running mates fly to Florida for what promises to be an incredibly interesting matchup in the first round with the East-leading Heat.

Miami ended the regular season with 10 more wins than a Hawks team that stumbled out of the gate, experienced a brief dalliance with momentum interrupted by a COVID-19 outburst that made them all but unrecognizable, and had to survive two elimination matches just to clear it to no. 8. Take a look under the bonnet and you will see that Atlanta in the second half of the season played much more like the team we saw marching to the Eastern Conference final last spring.

The Hawks went 26-15 after Jan. 15 – a pace of 52 wins over an entire season and the fifth-best record in the East, just one loss behind the Heat. Their net rating was actually a tick better than Miami in that time, despite starting power forward John Collins missing 23 games. They went from the NBA’s third worst defense before mid-January to just south of the league average thereafter, thanks in part to the return of De’Andre Hunter; they did so while running neck and neck with the Celtics and Wolves about the best offensive in the NBA. I know it’s become a bit of a cliché to describe a team as “not your typical 8-seed”, but… yes, Hawks is it not your typical 8 seeds.

This does not necessarily mean that a disturbance is on the way. Miamis really well, and won three out of four games against the Hawks in the regular season, including a 113-109 victory last week. Capela’s set for an MRI of his hyperextended knee on Saturday; if he is to lose time, Okongwu, who is queuing for a big bump from the 20.7 minutes per. significantly x factor in the series. It’s still unclear when Collins – Atlanta’s second-leading goal scorer and rebounder during the regular season – may be able to return from the finger and foot sprains that have kept him on the sidelines for most of two months.

Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro profile themselves as tasty targets for Trae to search for switches, but a Heat team that will flank the vulnerable swingmen with a combination of Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, Kyle Lowry and Caleb Martin may have a solid enough defensive infrastructure to withstand the chase. Erik Spoelstra’s deep list and willingness to play mismatch basketball when needed could also limit the number of safe places for Young to hide. Plus, while the Hawks would have to play two elimination games in three days to win their place in a Sunday matinee tipping less than 40 hours after the play-off final ended, the Heat will come after a full week of rest and recreation. Put it all together, and Miami is likely to be heavily favored in the series.

However, as the old saying goes, everyone has a plan until they are hit by an evil crossover and a pull-up 3 from the parking lot. (Or something like that.) Hawks do not have to discover a new roadmap to success; they just have to follow the one they found last spring, entrusting their incomparable pick-and-roll wizard to dismantle every cover the opponent throws out and fill in all the gaps around him. Unlocking a Miami defense that is one of the league’s best, ugliest, and most versatile promises to be challenging; it’s also exactly the kind of challenge Trae has given his reputation by playing.

I do not imagine the Heat regretting the set of circumstances that led them to no. 1 seed or something. I’m just saying that if I were Goliath at the top of the conference, then Trae Young – who can go from seemingly uncomfortable to absolutely unstoppable in an instant – might just be the last guy I would like to see go. up on me with a slingshot in hand.

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