Trae Young has earned a reputation for stepping up under the brightest of lights and he added to his burgeoning lore with another breathtaking performance in the play-in finale.
It began late in the third quarter of the play-in game for the East’s eighth seed. Young and the Atlanta Hawks were still unable to make much progress on trimming the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 10-point halftime lead.
The Hawks were still trailing by seven as the Cavaliers were energized by their electric home crowd that has been starved for postseason basketball since LeBron James left them for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.
Cleveland controlled the first half and much of the third quarter as they were poised to take the win and advance to the playoffs. However, Young had other plans in mind. He drew two defenders on a pick-and-pop with Danilo Gallinari then found him for a three-pointer to cut the lead to four, 76-72, with three minutes left in the third period.
That was Young’s ninth assist of the evening and it turned out to be his last one.
He instantaneously flipped the switch and went from distributor to scorer in the grandest way possible. A minute after his final assist, an energized Young split the defense of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen for a slick drive to the basket. The lay-up was the opening salvo of what would become one of the most furious scoring barrages by a single player in recent memory.
The 6’1 guard then hit back-to-back long threes on their next two possessions. After that, he resumed his aggressive forays to the basket on their last two plays of the third quarter to earn himself four free throws.
Atlanta was now tied with the Cavaliers, 84-84, heading into the fourth quarter. Their momentum carried over as they kicked off the last period with an 11-2 run that gave them a nine-point lead with 6:20 left in the match. Cleveland did not quit and slowly trimmed the lead, but Young was there to quell their rally each and every time.
Two free throws from Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley eventually pulled them within one point with a minute and a half remaining. Young, unafraid of the big moment, was there to respond yet again. The two-time NBA All-Star evaded the towering double team of the 6’11 Jarrett Allen and 7’0 Lauri Markkanen to hit a floater from right below the free throw line.
That was all the separation that the Hawks needed and they went on to eliminate the Cavaliers with a 107-101 win. This booked them a seven-game first round series with the first place Miami Heat that will be an ideological clash between offense and defense.
Young put on a stunning performance as he put Atlanta on his shoulders when it mattered the most. Over the last 14 minutes of the game, he scored 28 of his game-high 38 points and wound up accounting for 43 of their team’s 56 second half points.
Bogdan Bogdanovic also played a key role as he hit his first five shots and led the way for them in the first half. He finished with 19 points, five rebounds, two assists, and three steals off the bench while Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter added 14 and 13, respectively. These three will be especially crucial moving forward as their production helps alleviate the pressure that opposing defenses apply on the dynamic Young.
The Hawks have not had the smoothest of seasons following last year’s surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals, although the one constant bright spot has been their ability to show up for these marquee games. Now that they have secured their spot in the playoffs, each and every one of their games will matter more than the previous one and it will be interesting to see if they can keep up this trend.
The Heat are an imposing opponent and Atlanta will have to bring their best from the get-go. They are likely to be without their starting big men John Collins, who has been sidelined since March with a finger and foot sprain, and Clint Capela after he exited this game in the first half with a knee injury.
It would have been an uphill climb even if the Hawks were fully healthy, but these kinds of situations seem to always bring out the best in Young. The world will be watching to see if he can pull off another magnificent performance and history suggests that the next one is just around the corner.