The Atlanta Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday night by the Miami Heat. The series was not particularly close: Three of Miami’s wins came by double digits, two by a combined 48 points. Atlanta’s lonely Game 3 win, by a single point, required some unlikely fourth-quarter heroics. There’s no terrible shame in getting your ass handed to you by your conference’s top seed. For that matter, each year 29 of the NBA’s 30 teams finish their seasons in disappointment; the Hawks can find comfort in the fact that their disappointment came at the end of a by-God playoff series. The thing to hope for, in any season where a championship is out of reach, is that you played proudly and gave yourself a chance. The whole “leave it all on the field” deal.
I bring this up because the Hawks may not be able to take that particular comfort. For one thing, their final possession of their final game, when they needed a three-pointer to tie the score and reach overtime, was a hilarious disaster. I would sure hate to have this sequence rattling around in my head as the decisive moment of a difficult, disappointing season. Have a look at this piece of crap:
I watched this play live Tuesday night, and I have watched it a solid 20 times since, and I still have no idea how the Hawks were planning on getting a game-tying shot up. Trae Young runs into the back of teammate Onyeka Okongwu and spends the remainder of the play doing lunges 28 feet from the basket, like an NBA 2K player stuck in a glitch. Okongwu, who seems like he’s going to be very good someday but has taken three total career three-pointers, calls for the ball at the elbow and then retreats to behind the arc, where he cannot realistically help. Kevin Huerter loops through the paint and then jogs away from the basket in what we will go ahead and call a zipper cut, but with nowhere near the urgency to generate space for an inbound pass, let alone a clean shot. Danilo Gallinari seems to be the only Hawks player who realizes that the ball must eventually be put into play, but his solution to this problem is to put himself in range to take a handoff from Delon Wright, which simply cannot be by design, for the exact reason that doing so invites Wright’s defender to immediately trap Gallinari in the corner, cut of from all escape routes and all hope.
So Nate McMillan did not sketch up a real winner with Atlanta’s final timeout. But harder to swallow than this disaster of a final play was the fact that the Hawks found themselves needing a buzzer-beating three-pointer in the first place, in order to preserve any hope of extending the series. The Heat are considered a nightmare matchup for Atlanta, largely because when healthy Miami can throw a whole lineup of ferocious, versatile defenders at Trae Young, muck up Atlanta’s dangerous high screens, and throw a wrench into their late-clock and late-game matchup -hunting. But the Heat that took the floor Tuesday night were missing both Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler due to injuries, which meant extending the roles and minutes of backups Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, and thrusting a lightly used Victor Oladipo all the way into the starting lineup . In place of the terrifyingly feisty high-use lineup normally at Erik Spoelstra’s disposal, Miami’s starting five featured three players who would not be guaranteed rotation jobs on the Atlanta Hawks.
It’s reasonable to expect that a team built around a prolific All-NBA-caliber point guard would lick its chops at the prospect of facing that starting five in a playoff game. Young, the breakout star of the 2021 playoffs, had a miserable time through the first four games of the Heat series. Game 4—in which he scored nine points on 11 shots, attempted (and missed) one single shot from inside the three-point arc, and finished minus-27 in a 24-point loss—was possibly the low point of Young’s entire NBA career. With Butler a late scratch and Lowry already on the shelf, this was the time for Young to haul the Hawks onto his back, kick the ass of the Miami Heat, rejuvenate the spirit of his team, and send the series back to Atlanta, where the Hawks have lost just four times since mid-January.
That extremely did not happen. Young’s maddening passivity from Game 4 continued, and he finished Tuesday night with 11 points on 12 shots, zero made threes on five attempts, and a game-high six turnovers, several of which were howlingly bad. Early in the third quarter the Hawks had a fast break following a Bam Adebayo turnover; Huerter threw it ahead to Young with a clean runway to the hoop, but instead of going in for a bucket, Young hung in the air and whipped a desperate scoop pass backward, to no one in particular. Later in the quarter, Young found himself defended in an isolation against Bam Adebayo, reached a little too deeply into his bag trying to make a dribble move, and wound up committing a kicked-ball violation. With about 5:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Hawks down eight, Young got a little sloppy with his dribble on the right wing and Strus just stuck out a hand and stripped him of the ball, leading to a Heat runout. At no point did Young assert himself as the game’s most dynamic playmaker and shot-creator, or for that matter as even one of Atlanta’s key offensive players. With his final shot attempt of the night, Young smashed a catch-and-shoot corner three-point look off the side of the backboard.
Young’s fans will correctly point out that Atlanta’s offense doesn’t evidently have a lot of big inspired ideas for how to maximize his value in circumstances where the opposing defense can load up the floor with tough point-of-attack defenders. The Hawks don’t do much of the cool off-ball screening, give-and-go, constant-motion stuff that the Golden State Warriors use to leverage Stephen Curry’s shooting as a weapon away from the ball. When Young isn’t orchestrating the offense, he is often drifting out toward the sideline in deep three-point territory, a routine familiar to anyone who’s clenched their jaw in frustration while watching Russell Westbrook or James Harden or John Wall. There’s spacing to be gained from having a good shooter stationed a few feet behind the arc—this has been most of Eric Gordon’s value as an NBA player for going on five years—but using Young as a stationary floor-spacer and release valve, on a team lacking much by way of secondary playmakers, is doing the defense’s job for it.
Young finished the series with more turnovers than made baskets, and outscored Max damn Strus across five games by just seven total points. Hearing him talk very matter-of-factly about how successful the Heat were at shoving him out of the action, as he did following Tuesday’s loss, brings me as close as I have ever come to actually liking Trae Young: “No matter who they have out there, they can play, it’s about their system. Their defensive system is all about helping, and when they’ve got a guy that they’re targeting to take away they do a really good job of doing that.” To me it’s very appealing to think that part of what happened in this series is Young saw how far Miami was willing to tilt its defense and made a conscious effort to become more of a floor-spacer and humble distributor, trusting that all the defensive attention would open up avenues for his teammates to take on his usual share of ass-kicking responsibilities.
If that’s the case—if what looked very much like demoralization was in fact a level-headed decision to become Ty Lawson—that would be sort of sweetly admirable, but the fact remains that the Atlanta Hawks are not built to succeed with Trae Young shifted into career mode. For better or worse, the NBA is constructed in such a way that almost no team can survive if its best player submits to being taken away by an opposing defensive scheme. Temperamentally, the sport’s best players tend to be the kinds of Kobe-brained lunatics who would simply never permit their share of the offense to be halved by an opposing defensive scheme, even if it means taking an unforgivable number of awful hero shots. There’s a lofty and elusive reward for this bullheadedness: The sport tends to bestow superstardom only on players who’ve proven that nothing so crude as a defensive scheme ever could take them away. For the most part, a guy who says the defense did not want me to score, and so I didn’t tends over time to become the butt of many jokes.
Young is for sure a star and a max player and all that stuff. He’s one of the most gifted offensive players in the sport, and when he’s not hunting whistles is one of the most entertaining guys to watch do his thing on a basketball court. Every defense he’s ever faced as an NBA player has had designs on wiping him out of the action and forcing his teammates to make up the difference. The Heat are the very rare team who can pull it off, but taking the next step, for the Hawks and for Young, will mean answering that with more than a shrug and a tip of the cap.