Nate McMillan knows, more than most, the unpredictability of a point guard who is endowed with unwavering confidence.
As a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, McMillan shared a back room with Gary Payton. The cheeky Payton scored a goal on almost everyone and backed away from absolutely no one, including Michael Jordan.
So McMillan, now the interim coach of the fifth seeded Atlanta Hawks, didn’t panic when his star guard Trae Young shot against the top seeded Philadelphia 76ers during much of his team’s crucial game in the semifinals of the NBA’s Eastern Conference on Sunday night.
“I can’t believe how calm I was during this game and I think it just came from the fact that I knew these guys were going to give me whatever they had,” said McMillan, adding to Young: ” He is fearless, so “the opponents, they have to watch out for that. He will take a shot when open regardless of how many shots he missed. He really expands the defense. “
And Young missed a lot of shots on Sunday. But his greatest strength is his confidence, which is maximized by the unpredictability of his repertoire.
Will he emerge from a height of 30 feet or will he knock a line drive pass through a small crease in the hands of John Collins? Will he zig and zag into lane to find a floater or throw an alley-oop pass to Clint Capela? Will he retire for a middle distance attempt or lure the defenders into the lane before kicking the ball to Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic or Kevin Huerter?
The options seem plentiful with any offensive possession, with Young choosing the path dictated by the defense. On Sunday, Young, who sustained a right shoulder injury, missed 17 of his first 19 shots when Hürter took the offensive load while collecting 27 points in the playoffs.
The threat of Young pulling up from the depths prolonged Philadelphia’s defense, and his many forays into the orbit resulted in multiple finishes for Capela as Atlanta kept the game close.
“I know I just had to find a way,” Young said afterwards. “My shot went off tonight. My right hand and shoulder – I was still trying to fight my way through and pull through and shots didn’t go off tonight, but my teammates showed up and made plays. I, I was just trying to find her. “
In the final moments, Young found his shot and Atlanta took the series with a 103-96 win, earning its first trip to the conference finals since 2015. The Hawks will face the No. 3 seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Atlanta never stayed behind after Young’s mid-range floaters pitched the Hawks 86-84 and his long 3-point shot and free throws cemented the result.
“They played for me the whole game,” said Young. “I just wanted to get through in the end and help them a little. I know I didn’t shoot the ball great today, but they definitely played and it was a total team effort tonight. “
This season comes to an end without the pillars of the last playoffs, in part because of a series of high profile injuries. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden lost in the second with the Nets. Stephen Curry’s only post-season appearance came while watching his brother Seth play for Philadelphia.
Instead, these playoffs provide a stage for players like Phoenix’s Young and Devin Booker to grow up. Both were accused of compiling empty calorie statistics for lost teams.
Young took what the defense allowed as he learned the league in his first two seasons. He just didn’t have the caliber of teammates he’s now surrounded by in his third.
Atlanta has not exceeded 30 wins in either of the previous two seasons and was not among the 22 teams invited to the Walt Disney World bubble last season when the NBA resumed the pandemic-interrupted season.
The organization quickly and intelligently retooled, adding Bogdanovic and Gallinari through freelance agencies and Capela and Lou Williams through commercial deals to work with the developing core of Young, Collins, and Huerter. (De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, two other young players, were injured.)
The Hawks started the season hoping to qualify for the playoffs, but that goal quickly seemed out of reach. Atlanta started 14-20 before firing Coach Lloyd Pierce and promoting McMillan, who had been an assistant. The Hawks bounced back around the time Bogdanovic returned from an injury that had restricted him, finishing the 27-11 season to earn the conference’s fifth seed.
“It’s been a tough journey,” said Young. “It took a lot of losses to come here. For us, I think the guys that have been here since the remodel made this feeling a lot better than what it was. We know it’s our first year together in the playoffs, and it’s just the beginning. That’s the best thing about this whole thing. “
Young topped both the remodel and rally, averaging 29.1 points and 10.4 assists per game in the playoffs. It can be a frustrating gamer to watch. He lures fouls in a Harden-like fashion, arbitrarily and deliberately stopping in the lane for a defender to hit. He gets results.
So far this postseason, Young has bowed at Madison Square Garden while completing the Knicks in five games, and he has done pushups on the court at the Wells Fargo Center while outlasting the 76s. The Hawks have claimed five playoff games in New York and Philadelphia, with Young enjoying his villain role and smiling as the crowd booed and cursed him.
The last time the Hawks made it this deep into the playoffs, they were led by Mike Budenholzer, now the Bucks coach. Milwaukee plays Giannis Antetokounmpo, a former Defensive Player of the Year, and Jrue Holiday, considered one of the league’s top perimeter-on-ball defenders. The Bucks are paying Holiday well – he signed a four-year, $ 135 million extension in April – to influence a series like the upcoming one.
The Bucks present another serious challenge in a postseason when Young and the Hawks kept silencing their skeptics.
Nobody expected Atlanta to qualify for the conference finals. The Hawks play like a team that people don’t know is supposed to have a cap.
Perhaps Young’s unwavering confidence is contagious.
“The confidence is still there,” said Young. “The trust will stay the same. We’re glad we made it to the final of the Eastern Conference, but we’re not satisfied. It’s great that we’re here, but we still have a few games to win. “