Halfway into the fourth quarter of the biggest game of his life, Trae Young was living a basketball nightmare. After becoming the breakout star of the postseason, silencing Madison Square Garden and Knicks before working over the 76ers through the first six games of the conference semifinals, he was 2 for 19 from the field with four turnovers in Game 7.
Then, after a Seth Curry 3-pointer sent the Philly crowd into a frenzy, stretching the Sixers’ lead to four as the game seemed to be slipping away from an Atlanta team that was starting to self-destruct, Young got Matisse Thybulle to fly by on a pump fake and willed this midrange jumper through the net. Under any other circumstances it would’ve been a nothing shot.
When I say Young willed that shot in, I mean he willed it in. Ice Trae was ice cold, and not in the good way. He couldn’t hit a thing. And he’s not a natural midrange shooter on top of it. That shot requires a touch Young has not perfected in the way a Chris Paul or Devin Booker has. He lives beyond the arc and at the rim. When he’s in between, he’s looking for floaters. That shot, with Philly in ownership of all momentum and just waiting to pull away, tested every nerve in his body. And he made it.
From that point forward, the Trae Young we’ve come to expect over the past month — the Trae Young who generated 57.6 points per game via his own scoring or assists against the Sixers, per Synergy — showed up.
That’s the thing about stars: They don’t lose confidence. Their mojo is always one make away. That make, as it happened, cut Philly’s lead to two, and a minute and change later, Young gave Atlanta the lead with his patented floater.
Two minutes later, with Atlanta still clinging to a one-point lead, Young lost control of the ball trying to get into his bag isolated against Tobias Harris. He could’ve panicked. He’s young, no pun intended. Those last two shots notwithstanding, he was still having a terrible game. Those bad vibes would linger in a lot of players.
But Young stayed poised. He knew that whatever had gone down over the past 45 game minutes was irrelevant. One way or another, a couple plays were going to win this game. He calmly retrieved the ball, and rather than settling for a rushed shot at the end of a dying clock, he navigated past Harris and into the lane, drawing Joel Embiid up for fear of his floater, and set up Clint Capela on the back side for a smashing lob dunk.
This was the moment when it felt like the Hawks actually might win this thing. As the Sixers were tightening up, Young was letting loose, and when he dropped this 30-foot dagger 30 seconds later, a sense of surreality set in. Philly was finished.
And just like that, the Atlanta Hawks are headed to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. People will say they can’t win. Their run is over. But what we learned about Trae Young and the Hawks on Sunday night should serve as a warning to any doubters: They can win under any circumstances.
Indeed, you can only learn so much about a player, and by extension a team, when everything is going well. It’s when it’s all going to hell that you find out, as they say, what a guy is made of. Young is made of all the right stuff. He didn’t buckle under the weight of the Garden. He didn’t cave to the size and physicality of the Sixers. He was having the worst game of his life at the worst possible time, and he turned it all around in an instant. He made the plays when it counted, and now all the plays he didn’t make through the first three and a half quarters don’t matter.
What does matter is what Young was able to dig deep in his own guts when his only other choice was to lay down. It was fight or flight time, and Young fought. And he won. And in doing so, to me, he showed us something more than he has at any other time throughout this honeymoon postseason. Good players win with their good stuff. Great ones pull it out with their bad stuff. Trae Young was bad in Game 7, until he wasn’t. It can flip that quickly when you keep believing and keep playing. So a huge congratulations are in order for Young and these Hawks. They’re more than a great story. They’re a really good team led by a truly great player. And they’re not done yet.