In the 2013 playoffs, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors rolled in as a No. 6 seed seemingly happy just to be a part of the show. Then … they became the show. After upsetting the Denver Nuggets in the first round, everyone thought they had surely hit their wall in the second round against the heavily favored, championship-caliber San Antonio Spurs. But in Games 1 and 2, on the road, Curry was the best player on the floor, and the Warriors looked decidedly like the better team.
A similar thing is happening with Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, who, after making five-game work of the higher-seeded New York Knicks in the first round, thoroughly outplayed — though they tried their hardest to give it away at the end — the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers in a 128-124 Game 1 victory on Sunday.
The Sixers put forth a better defensive effort in the second half but ultimately had no answer for Young, who finished with 35 points and 10 assists to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to record at least 30 points in their first four career road playoff games. He is also the first player in Hawks history to log 35 points and 10 assists in a playoff game.
We knew Young was a rising star from almost the first minute he came into the league. He was an All-Star in just his second season. But this season, Young’s third in the league, he didn’t get an All-Star nod despite averaging 26.4 points and 9.4 assists prior to the break. You know who else didn’t make the All-Star team in the year of his first postseason? Steph Curry.
If you look back at the second half of the 2013 season, Curry went nuts after the All-Star snub as the Warriors steamed toward the playoffs. Young and the Hawks finished this season 27-11 under Nate McMillan. But like Curry and the Warriors before we saw what they were, and could be, there were questions as to whether Young’s game, as statistically explosive as it has proven to be, would translate to the postseason. That is no longer a question, regardless of how this series vs. the Sixers — or any future series — turns out. Young is the realest of deals.
This is the first real step in the evolution of a superstar. Do it in the postseason. Against elite defenses that are throwing just about everything and everyone at you. We’re seeing Devin Booker do it on Phoenix. We saw Luka Doncic do it in the bubble, and he just backed it up by torching the Clippers again in a seven-game defeat this postseason.
The Knicks were a top-five defense all year and had no chance against Young. The Sixers, on paper, have better individual defenders, but Doc Rivers stuck Danny Green on Young to start and it was a total bloodbath through the first half.
Ben Simmons came out on Young in the second half. Philly sprung some traps and Matisse Thybulle had some impact as a physical, long defender fighting over screens. But Green found his way back to Young, and it was too late anyway. We’ll see what Rivers does in Game 2, but now it’s the Sixers adjusting to Young rather than Young adjusting to the size and physicality of the Sixers. He’s playing on his terms. In the playoffs. Dictating desperate rebuttals that have, through his first six postseason games, fallen listless.
That’s what superstars do. And that’s what we’re seeing. Young going from statistical All-Star to winning superstar right before our eyes. Former Nuggets coach George Karl recalls witnessing a similar phenomenon developing in 2013 — an exciting young player crossing over into a different realm.
“To see that at ground level, from the bench, you could see it in [Curry’s] eyes,” Karl told CBS Sports a few years back. “When he was coming down the court with the ball in his hands, he was locked, man. He was in it. You don’t see that often, you know, where a guy is making that superstar leap right in the moment.”
Young has been compared to Curry ad nauseam. They have obvious similarities, and Hawks president and general manager Travis Schlenk spent 13 seasons with the Warriors. He has built this Hawks team in a similar way — multiple playmakers and versatile defenders all in support of a magical point guard.
But Young is not Curry. I wrote as much earlier this season, criticizing Young for his loose 3-point trigger, particularly early in the shot clock, despite average shooting numbers that date back to college. That remains true. Young shot 34 percent from 3 this season; 29 percent after the All-Star break. He’s at 34 percent for the playoffs.
Young is a better shooter, or at least a more threatening one, that his numbers would indicate, but qualifications only go so far. At some point, you are what you are. What’s made the difference is Young’s willingness to cut back on the unfiltered gunning. Last year, over 45 percent of Young’s shots were 3s. This season, that number dropped to 35 percent, and it’s at 36 percent so far in the playoffs. How much of that is Young’s maturation, and how much can be attributed to his simply having more capable playmakers around him?
“It’s both,” Hawks assistant GM Landry Fields recently told CBS Sports. “When you surround a guy like Trae with guys who can make plays on their own and guys who can shoot, and then those guys are doing what they need to do in their role, now that opens it up for Trae to trust more and more.
“But you have to be careful with that,” Fields continued. “Because Trae is a very special and unique talent. The ceiling is super high for him, and you want him to keep developing and growing without too much restriction. So you try to meet guys where they’re at in their development, and you understand that sometimes Trae is going to take some shots that are going to have you scratching your head a little bit. But at the same time, for what he could be, I think the way we’ve always looked at it, it’s better to let that freedom kind of exist in a player like Trae, and then in the right time try to tailor it back.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing,” Fields concluded. “Trae is really putting it all together with the right pieces around him. It’s a credit to [GM] Travis [Schlenk] and his vision for this team to put shooters around Trae, to go get a big-time rim protector and finisher in [Clint] Capela. You get Bogi [Bogdan Bogdanovic] and Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] and Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter and Solo [Solomon Hill] and Tony Snell, my god, the guy led the league in 3-point shooting. You see the connection with John Collins. We made the trade for Lou Williams; now you have another shooter. All these guys are doing their jobs, and that gives us, I guess you could say, the weightiness to coach and teach Trae in those moments. Because now it’s not just theory, or abstract. It’s tangible stuff. We’re saying to him: ‘Look, Bogi’s shooting X percentage here, Gallo is shooting X percentage there, Kevin is making plays, and now it’s a real thing because the results are happening. Now it’s easy for Trae to see the whole picture, rather that just looking at the game through what he can do because he’s so talented. I think right now, Trae’s seeing the whole picture as well as he ever has. He’s open to what his teammates are doing, and that makes for a vibrant player. It enhances everyone.”
Throughout his first postseason, Young has expertly threaded a needle between orchestrating offense for less gifted individual creators and hunting his own buckets. That’s not an easy thing to do. One click too far, and you end up either compromising, or overdoing, your own aggression. In a league that is now dominated by world-class scorers having to double as point guards — the Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard types — it can take years to strike this balance.
Young, in the most important stretch of basketball of his life, is acing the test — understanding that his 3-point shot, especially given his range, is most impactful as a gateway to his real brilliance, which is getting into the lane and wreaking havoc with his floater and/or lob passes and slingshot dimes out to shooters.
“If you’re going to give [Young] space, he’s going to pick you apart,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports after Atlanta’s win on Sunday. “You have to take away his space, crowd him, make him see over bodies. I thought the Sixers had some success with that in the second half, but they let him get comfortable early on.”
How, exactly, to make Young uncomfortable has never been less clear. It’s easy to say Simmons, who is happy to proclaim himself the best defensive player in the league, should get the assignment. But in today’s game, it’s not quite that simple. If you put an elite stopper on an elite scorer, they’re just going to run a ball screen to get out of the matchup.
Yes, Simmons is terrific at chasing over screens and defending from behind, but Young is still getting downhill and into the lane in that setup. Should the Sixers decide to extend out and trap Young with Simmons on the ball, now you’ve removed your best perimeter defender from the play once Young passes out of the jam.
Playing Thybulle and Simmons together — with one tracking Young and the other roaming — is the logical defensive response, but that presents offensive issues as now the Sixers are playing with two non-shooters, squeezing Joel Embiid’s space. Speaking of Embiid, he’s not a big who’s going to survive switching out onto Young on the perimeter. Rivers had him in drop coverage, which Young kills with floaters and lobs. The Sixers even dropped a few times with Tobias Harris on Young, and he ate it up. But Harris can’t stay with Young one-on-one when he presses up. Neither can Green.
Honestly, what do you do?
In the absence of any solid answer as to how to stop Young, the only option[s] may be Philly shaking up its rotations (what were those all-bench lineups?) to more powerful subsequent units to take better advantage of the few non-Young minutes, and trying to wear Young down by targeting him on the other end. The Sixers didn’t do much of that in Game 1. They can surely put Young in more screening actions. They can post him up. Harris said after the game that they will likely look at doing more of that stuff in Game 2.
They better do something. Because as it stands, Young has landed the first punch, establishing himself as arguably the best — or at least the most damaging — player in a series that involves Joel Embiid. That might sound crazy given that Embiid was a leading MVP candidate through much of the season, but back in 2013, Curry went from a first-round sensation to the best player in a series that included Tim Duncan.
The Warriors didn’t end up winning that series. They were fighting uphill after blowing a 16-point lead with under four minutes to play in Game 1. The Hawks nearly did the same on Sunday, allowing an 11-point lead with 2:15 to play, and an eight-point lead with 16.5 seconds to play, melt into a two-point lead with 10 seconds remaining.
But they pulled it out. And now this series doesn’t feel like a feel-good glimpse into what the Hawks can become down the road. It’s about what they are right now. One game up on the No. 1 seed with the conference finals legitimately in their sights. Is that getting greedy for a team that, just three months ago, was underperforming to such a degree that it had to fire its coach? Perhaps. But when a player like Young, with a roster built specifically to complement and support him, starts to put it all together on a stage like this, it’s hard not to dream a little.
“It’s very exciting right now,” said Fields, who was working in the Austin Spurs’ front office at this time last year. “Speaking as a guy who was on the outside looking in at the Hawks, to go from where they were to where we are now, and even with the struggles we were having early in the season … injuries hurt us, but you don’t want to blame it all on that. … To be in the second round of the playoffs, it’s not a sigh of relief, necessarily, because that suggests we didn’t fully believe this could happen. But to be on the inside of it now, from my perspective, to see up close the process that has been taking place here, there’s just a lot of optimism about this team. … It’s true, you don’t know exactly what you have until you see it in a playoff atmosphere. So to be able to see the fruits of everyone’s labor, to see a player like Trae lifting everyone to this level that Travis envisioned, and to know there’s still so much in front of this team, it’s pretty cool.”