MILWAUKEE — Trae Young shook free from Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, one of the NBA’s best defenders, and found himself with acres of space between himself and Bucks forward Bobby Portis.
And then the superstar guard for the Atlanta Hawks, with more time than he knew what to do with, decided to do a little shimmy before he let fly with a 3-pointer that, like so many of Young’s other shots in the Hawks’ 116-113 win in Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, softly settled in the bottom of the net.
“I mean, I had a lot of time,” Young, who finished with a ridiculous line of 48 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in 41 minutes, would say later with a smile. “I had a lot of time.
“I was kind of tired a little bit, so I had a little second to get a deep breath, and knock it down.”
That Atlanta has made it this far has surprised practically everyone. That it has become only the fourth team in NBA history to win three Game 1s on the road in the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information research — joining a group that includes the 1999 New York Knicks, 1989 Chicago Bulls and 1981 Houston Rockets — is truly stunning.
And the Hawks have done it because of the confidence instilled in them by their star — a player who is never afraid to make a play with style, no matter the situation.
If there was any doubt about that, his shimmy should put those thoughts to rest.
“I was thinking the same thing you guys were: ‘Did he really just do that?'” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said.
The same could be said for the Hawks, after they once again came from behind — this time from seven points down with 4:18 remaining in the game when Holiday, who finished with 33 points and 10 assists in 42 minutes, buried a 3-pointer to give Milwaukee a 105-98 lead.
It was precisely the kind of moment that a veteran team, playing at home and having gone back and forth with its opponent, would typically use to put the game away.
Instead, the Hawks stormed back, going on a 17-8 run from there to close out the game and secure the win — a run that was powered, like so much of the night, almost exclusively by Young, who either scored or assisted on 13 of those 17 points, including four free throws inside the final 20 seconds to help keep the Hawks in front.
And after Milwaukee missed a pair of potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds — one by Pat Connaughton, which was a particularly ugly airball, and another by Khris Middleton, who finished the game 0-for-9 from beyond the 3-point arc — the Hawks found themselves once again taking Game 1 on the road in the Eastern finals.
“Trae is a bold dude, to just be frank with you,” Hawks forward John Collins said. “He lives for those moments.
“I don’t know what more people need to see from him in the playoffs to let them know he’s a big-time player. He loves the bright lights.
“I forgot about the shimmy, but that’s just Trae. That’s his swag. If it helps him make the shot, then keep shimmying, my boy.”
That’s pretty much the same attitude the Hawks have carried with them throughout these playoffs. When asked why they have been able to keep surprising people in these playoffs — and particularly with their play on the road, where Atlanta is now 6-2 in this postseason — there was, essentially, a collective shrug, followed by the same response: Why not?
“I think we can go as far as we want to,” Young said. “I don’t think there is a ceiling, unless you put the Finals on it.
“I believe in this team, and we all believe in each other.”
At this point, it would be crazier for them not to believe in themselves after what the Hawks have been able to accomplish to this point. And Atlanta has done it with De’Andre Hunter, their best perimeter defender, being hardly available before season-ending knee surgery, and with Bogdan Bogdanovic — their second-best perimeter scorer after Young — playing at far less than 100% for the final few games of the series against the Philadelphia 76ers, and in Game 1 against the Bucks, due to right knee soreness.
Despite that, the Hawks keep finding ways to win. They got a stellar game from Collins, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds. They got 19 rebounds from Clint Capela, including a massive offensive rebound and putback with 29 seconds to go that regained the lead for good for Atlanta.
And, of course, they got an endless series of plays from Young. The Bucks went out of their way to let Young get into the midrange and take floaters in the first half. It was a sensible strategy, Young himself said, after he struggled to make those very same shots during a regular season meeting between the two teams.
On this night, however, Young couldn’t miss to start the game, scoring 25 points in the first half alone. And as he was able to get going, it forced the Bucks to bend toward him, going away from center Brook Lopez, who played only 20 minutes, in favor of smaller lineups to try and switch against Young and the Hawks instead.
Only that didn’t work either — in part because, after holding Young to two free throws through the first three-and-a-half quarters, Young got 10 over the final few minutes of the fourth quarter.
“It’s not easy [to win],” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said, after finishing with 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. “Never gets easy.
“At the end of the day, we got to come and do our job. We got to be better.”
The Hawks have now forced that same reaction from three straight opponents in these playoffs. As a result, they now have a lead in these Eastern Conference finals.
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