The thousands of people in attendance at Madison Square Garden were virtually in Trae Young’s grip.
At halftime of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round series between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks, Young walked toward his team’s locker room. While the point guard stared at his feet, his shoulder was met by that of 6-foot-11 bruiser Nerlens Noel at center court. Young glanced back, turned his head forward, and thrust his shoulders as if he were pulling up a bookbag. It didn’t phase him.
The moment captured the series. Young orchestrated an offense to the tune of “f*** you” chants. He was spat on by at least one fan. Every elbow, every outstretched leg, every bump and bruise taken on the chin. All the noise that he’s heard since his selection in the 2018 NBA Draft balled up into one playoff berth. Despite the pressure and doubts that lasted the better part of three years, Young delivered in his first playoff series.
“Whatever fans want to keep antagonizing that man, please go right ahead. It’s not going to bother him and we got his back as well,” Hawks forward John Collins said of Young.
Atlanta matched the Knicks’ grit and seemingly turned the tables by the end of the series, but Young hardly needed to be stood up for along the way. Collins’ words almost came as incitement. An exhortation to fanbases league wide that had a bone to pick with the 6’1 point guard. Not only did the thousands of belligerent New Yorkers that surrounded Young not phase the point guard; they lit a fire under him.
The Norman, Oklahoma native smirked his way through the series, backing his taunts with a full display of his arsenal across the board. Young elevated his game, building on his season long averages to post 29.2 points and 9.8 assists through five games vs. New York.
With so many phenomenal first round demonstrations around the league from young stars like Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and Ja Morant, it might be easier to normalize such performances than past years. But Young’s play was anything but normal. He catapulted himself into some elite company, ultimately compiling one of the premier postseason debuts in recent memory.
Young became just the fourth player in NBA history to average 25 points and 10 assists through his first four games, joining Stephen Curry, Kevin Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
“For me, I saw a lot of focus,” Young said. “I saw a lot of determination. I saw guys locked in and focused on our mission, and our mission was to win the series.”
As Game 1 came to a close, the young guard made it known to the entire building just how focused he was. Young analyzed the floor. He crossed center court, toying with different speeds, whipping the ball between each of his legs as he sized up Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina.
Young shifted his matchup back and forth, recognizing Ntilikina’s lack of awareness in the moment. It was the first time the Knicks’ guard checked in all game. As Young shifted back to his right, Ntilikina shifted left into teammate Taj Gibson, who read the back of Young’s jersey as he flew by. The Hawks guard rose up as he entered the key, managing to release a signature floater that gave his team a lead with 0.9 seconds. That was the closer.
It was that level of touch and confidence that allowed Young to dominate. The Hawks guard shot 51.3% on 39 attempts combined between driving floating bank jump shots and driving floating jump shots. After a notable regular season stretch during which he seemingly lost his touch, Young provided an array of floaters and runners to stun the harsh New York defenders that awaited him at the rim.
While he knocked down the long ball at an average rate, his occasional jumper from 25 feet and beyond kept the Knicks’ defense on its toes, applying pressure so high up the floor that it allowed him to skip to the rim like he did when Ntilikina picked him up.
Other times, the Kicks managed to get a help defender in front of him. Luckily for Young, he’s one of the league’s better active playmakers. As New York’s defense collapsed, the point guard used hook passes, skip passes and more to find his teammates.
Young picked apart what was recognized as an elite defense throughout the regular season, giving the Knicks fits, especially in the pick-and-roll. Young’s ability to find teammates and put pressure on the rim had defenders duped. New York tried everything from drop coverages to ICE coverages.
The Knicks were ultimately given a decision: allow Young to utilize his floater or let him lob it up and hope to recover. Both options grew less than ideal as the series endured.
Young embodied a model of consistency. The third year guard became the second visiting player in playoff history to score 30 points in three consecutive games at MSG, with the other being Michael Jordan.
Dominating a best of seven series at the Garden is no easy task for a young player experiencing their first postseason. Throughout the league’s history, few names have been synonymous with wreaking havoc at the Garden, and such a show hasn’t been put on for several decades. But the atmosphere was similar. While Young isn’t Michael Jordan and perhaps not even Reggie Miller, his first act is a worthy installment.
One perhaps even worthy of a bow.
“I know where we are,” Young said about his bow following his final shot of the series. “I know there are a lot of shows in this city and I know what they do when the show is over.”