Trae Young didn’t look off, per se. The All-Star point guard was still flashing his customary playmaking precision early in Friday’s play-in tournament finale against the Cavaliers. A timely hit-ahead feed to a streaking teammate there, a perfectly weighted bounce pass slipped between two defenders to a rolling big man there. When it came to the big stuff, though—the more obvious ways in which Trae typically torches defenses—he was coming up short.
With 3:30 to go in the third quarter, the Hawks’ conductor had missed 10 of his 14 shots, including six of seven 3-point tries. He’d taken just one free throw and committed four turnovers, taking some of the shine off of his eight assists. As he watched stepbacks and runners go awry after launching them over an active and exceedingly long-limbed Cleveland defense made whole by the return of Jarrett Allen, Young at times resembled a boxer who couldn’t quite find his range—a bit unsure of the best angle to attack.
In those final minutes of the third quarter, though, he found it. After that, it was just a matter of time until he delivered the knockout punch.
With the East’s final playoff berth on the line, Young hauled off and rained haymakers down the stretch, pouring in 28 points over the game’s final 15 minutes. He outscored the Cavs by himself in that span, seizing complete control of the proceedings to propel the Hawks to a 107-101 win that officially punched their ticket for a second straight trip to the playoffs.
That trip was anything but assured three months ago, when a Hawks team expected to contend after last season’s surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals sat at a dismal 17-25, ranking among the league’s biggest disappointments. Frankly, it didn’t seem like such a sure thing for most of Friday, either.
Buoyed by their All-Star center’s return after missing more than a month with a fractured 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 punishing defense from Caris LeVert, who sought every opportunity to hound Young. Cleveland entered halftime with a 10-point lead; Atlanta hit intermission having just watched starting center Clint Capela get helped off the floor after a foul he’d committed on Cavs rookie Evan Mobley resulted in him hyperextending his right knee.
In spite of the deficit, Capela’s absence, and Young’s shaky start, though, the Hawks just did whatever they needed to do to stay close and keep Cleveland from running away. They pounded the offensive glass when shots weren’t falling early, rebounding nine of their own misses in the first half. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who’d been a game-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 cranked up the defensive pressure on Garland, limiting the Cavs’ offensive engine to just one field goal attempt in 9.5 minutes spent guarding him, according to NBA.com’s 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 interior defense; he also made arguably the most important non-Trae play of the game for the Hawks, sliding across the lane with just under a minute to go in the fourth to break up a LeVert lob intended for Mobley. If he doesn’t nail that rotation to meet Mobley at the rim, it’s probably a dunk that cuts Cleveland’s deficit to one. Instead, Atlanta gets the ball back up three with 53 ticks left:
The rest of the Hawks did what they needed to do to stay afloat until Young could get untracked, and then he did the rest: splitting traps and dusting bigs on switches to get into the lane for floaters, creating space with his stepback, gleefully pulling up from Shaker Heights. He finished with 38 points on 13-for-25 shooting with nine assists in 40 minutes; he toyed with the NBA’s no. 6 regular-season defense, leaving the Cavs flat on their backs and staring up at the lights, and bringing an unceremonious end to what was, before the injuries became just too much to bear, one of the NBA’s most cheerful surprise stories.
Villains aren’t much for feel-good endings, though. And so: the plucky, overachieving upstarts go home, while the baddest 164-pound man in the NBA and his running buddies fly to Florida for what promises to be an awfully interesting first-round matchup with the East-leading Heat.
Miami finished the regular season with 10 more wins than a Hawks team that stumbled out of the gate, saw a brief dalliance with momentum scuttled by a COVID-19 outbreak that rendered them all but unrecognizable, and needed to survive two elimination games just to make it to no. 8. Take a peek under the hood, though, and you’ll see that, in the second half of the season, Atlanta played a hell of a lot more like the team we watched march to the Eastern Conference finals last spring.
The Hawks went 26-15 after January 15—a 52-win pace over a full 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’s in that span, 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 league average afterward, thanks in part to the return of De’Andre Hunter; they did so while running neck and neck with the Celtics and Wolves for the top offense in the NBA. I know it’s become something of a cliché to describe a team as “not your typical 8 seed,” but … well, the Hawks aren’t your typical 8 seed.
That doesn’t necessarily mean an upset’s in the offing. Miami’s really good, and won three out of four games against the Hawks during the regular season, including a 113-109 win in the final week. Capela’s set for an MRI of his hyperextended knee on Saturday; if he has to miss time, Okongwu, who’s in line for a major bump from the 20.7 minutes per game he averaged during the regular season and the 9.2 he averaged in the 2021 playoffs, becomes a significant x factor in the series. It remains unclear when Collins—Atlanta’s second-leading scorer and rebounder during the regular season—might be able to return from the finger and foot sprains that have kept him sidelined for the better part of two months.
Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro profile as tasty targets for Trae to seek out on switches, but a Heat team that will flank those vulnerable swingmen with some combination of Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, Kyle Lowry, and Caleb Martin might have a sturdy enough defensive infrastructure to withstand the hunting. Erik Spoelstra’s deep roster and willingness to play mismatch basketball when necessary could also limit the number of safe places for Young to hide. Plus, while the Hawks had to play two elimination games in three days to earn their spot in a Sunday matinee that tips off less than 40 hours after the play-in finale ended, the Heat will be coming off a full week of rest and recuperation. Add it all up, and Miami will likely be heavily favored in the series.
As the old saying goes, though, everyone’s got a plan until they get hit with an evil crossover and a pull-up 3 from the parking lot. (Or something like that.) The Hawks don’t need to discover a new road map to success; they just need to follow the one they found last spring, entrusting their peerless pick-and-roll warlock to dismantle every coverage the opponent throws out and filling in all the gaps around him. Unlocking a Miami defense that’s one of the league’s best, nastiest, and most versatile promises to be challenging; it’s also exactly the sort of challenge Trae’s made his reputation by acing.
I don’t imagine the Heat are lamenting the set of circumstances that led them to the no. 1 seed or anything. I’m just saying that, if I was Goliath at the top of the conference, Trae Young—who can go from seemingly uncomfortable to absolutely unstoppable in the blink of an eye—might just be the last dude I’d want to see walking up on me with a slingshot in his hand.