- NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
- Former contributor and editor at NPR
For most of Game 7, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young’s patented “shiver” gesture — the one he unleashes to let onlookers know he has transformed into Ice Trae — had a different connotation.
Ice Trae had been ice cold all night, missing 19 of his first 21 shots attempts from the field. By the third quarter, Hawks guard Kevin Huerter had assumed much of the scoring load.
Despite the struggles from the floor, Young wasn’t ineffectual offensively. Young leveraged the pressure applied on him by the Sixers and connected with teammates, such as center Clint Capela, on multiple alley-oops. If Young wasn’t going to score off the high screen on Sunday night, he’d make sure someone else would.
The Great Thaw for Young began well into the fourth quarter, as he dribbled to a spot at the foul-line extended, let Matisse Thybulle breeze by, then drained a jumper that trimmed Philadelphia’s lead to two points. It would be the last time Atlanta would trail in the series.
Young’s last two made shots from the field before icing the 103-96 win with three free throws, were his two trademarks — a floater in the lane, then a bomb from 29 feet.
“He’s fearless,” Hawks head coach Nate McMillan said. “The opponents have to guard for that. He will take a shot if he is open regardless of how many shots he has missed.”
Young finished with 21 points on 5-for-23 shooting (the exact same line that the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday, the opposing point guard he’ll face next, assembled in his Game 7 on the road. Like Young, Holiday redeemed himself with big shots late).
Young’s woes were a math problem for the Hawks, who would need hefty contributions from others. Huerter led the team with 27 points and was the best shotmaker on the floor for the Hawks in Game 7, hitting tough jumpers over Tobias Harris and picking on Seth Curry while advancing to the basket. John Collins patrolled the glass with 16 rebounds. In sum, it was enough for the Hawks to win a Game 7 on the road in only the third season of a total rebuild. “We’re a little naive,” Huerter said, suggesting that the Hawks’ youthful exuberance gives them a self-belief more seasoned teams might not have in such a situation.
Game 7 wasn’t about individual production for the Hawks, possibly the most improbable NBA conference finalists in 25 years. They stood at 14-20 on March 1, 11th place in the Eastern Conference. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, they’re the second team under the current playoff format (since 1984) to make the conference finals without an All-Star on the roster, joining the 1994 Indiana Pacers.
While that last one is a declarative fact, it would be unpersuasive to anyone with the Hawks. Young has been the celebrant in one of the most festive coming-out parties in recent NBA history. He has also established himself as one of the league’s most charismatic villains in a road arena. Effusive, Young remarked after the game that he derived a certain pleasure from clinching series in two notoriously hostile buildings in New York and Philadelphia.
“We’ve gone to two of the toughest places and played,” Young said. “It was a great environment. Loved the s— talking. Loved everything about it.”
This level of confidence would have been unthinkable 16 weeks ago, when McMillan replaced his predecessor, Lloyd Pierce. On Sunday night, Hawks players spoke of McMillan as almost a basketball guru. Huerter referred to him as the head of a snake. Capela lauded his halftime messages. Collins praised McMillan’s characterization of the team as a tight fist, each extremity bonded to the next.
They’ll need that bond for their conference finals opponent, the No. 3-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Whatever hiccups the Bucks suffer offensively for stretches, they have mounted one of the best postseason team defensive efforts since their 2019 squad. They’re yielding only 102.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, 3.3 points better than the second-ranked Phoenix Suns. The Bucks are an extremely long defensive unit, with size and/or strength at every position.
Size can bother Young — Ben Simmons held him to 0.95 points per chance off pick-and-rolls in the seven-game series, according to Second Spectrum tracking. In addition, Milwaukee committed the fewest fouls per possession this season, which will present a challenge to Young, who excels at deking opponents into cheap fouls.
Young presents a challenge of his own for Milwaukee. The Bucks’ defensive schemes emphasize perimeter pressure and rim protection, often conceding space between the arc and the paint. Scorers who can find and hit shots consistently from midrange — see Durant, Kevin — can pose particular problems. Yet, the Bucks have demonstrated a newfound flexibility this postseason, with a willingness to switch or even enter a zone defense when the situation demands it.
Durant’s explosive Game 5 notwithstanding, the Bucks have gone all-in on defense, all but whittling down their rotation to six trustworthy defenders.
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks will have to erect a wall to withstand Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo’s incursions into the paint. When the Bucks have it humming, they find reliable actions on the wing for Khris Middleton headed toward the basket, and get steady penetration from Holiday, who hasn’t shot the ball well this postseason.
Corner 3s, bully ball at the elbow, terror in transition: It’s a handful for any defense, and particularly a less experienced one, like Atlanta’s, that has some soft spots.
After the game, Young was asked to reflect on the series win over Philadelphia. He replied that he’d do that reflecting in the morning after spending Sunday night celebrating with his teammates. The commotion could be heard offstage.
Young, undeniably cocky but irrepressibly joyful, looked giddy about joining it, if only for a night.
“We’re happy we made the Eastern Conference finals but we’re not satisfied,” Young said. “It’s great we’re here but we still have some games left.”
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