The ease with which the Atlanta Hawks hung 74 first-half points on the Eastern Conference's top-ranked defense in Game 1 of their second-round series on Sunday should proselytize any remaining nonbelievers.
Trae Young did not empty his clip in Atlanta's five-game, first-round series win over a New York Knicks team that was just happy to be there. Instead, he reloaded as if he carried 10 times the playoff experience, systematically targeting a Philadelphia 76ers team that features two of the three Defensive Player of the Year finalists.
The result was 35 points, 10 assists and a 128-124 uppercut of a victory that put the Sixers on their heels.
"It's the bigger stage," Young told reporters after another masterful performance on Sunday. "Hopefully, a lot more people get to see me actually play and get to make a judgment that way, instead of reading the box scores. I think it's a good thing that we're actually getting to play on TV, and people are getting a chance to see what this team is really about, because we've got a lot of guys on this team who can play."
Young stretched the opposition to 30 feet with his shooting and ran the pick-and-roll offense to perfection, lobbing floaters and alley-oops over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons or finding his shooters in the corners for wide-open 3-pointers against a collapsing defense. It was an absolute clinic.
This was not a case of Embiid's meniscus tear lowering Philadelphia's ceiling. Embiid was great, amassing 39 points, nine rebounds and four assists in defeat. Young was better. Sixers coach Doc Rivers kept size on the 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard, assigning to him a committee of Simmons, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle — all quality defenders. None of it mattered. Young still had his way.
That should be a frightening thought for Philadelphia and other would-be challengers in the years to come.
The playoffs were when game plans were supposed to limit the undersized Young's dynamic playmaking and exploit his defense. Neither the Knicks nor Sixers have proven Young can be leveraged in their favor.
The difference between this year's Hawks and last year's edition is not just Young's willingness to share the ball when the trap gets too tight, but the presence of secondary playmakers once he does. Bogdan Bogdanovic is a perfect fit. Kevin Huerter has made great strides. Once that trio gets the ball moving, good luck to defenses trying to rotate onto the Hawks' shooters and keep their bigs from reclaiming the interior.
The Hawks' offense is relentless nine deep into their rotation. Just when you think Young's rest might offer a respite, they bring Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari off the bench. The two veteran reserves combined for 17 points on 10 shots, and neither was among Atlanta's five leading scorers. Bogdanovic and John Collins netted 21 points apiece. Huerter added 15 points, and Clint Capela recorded an 11-point double-double. Bogdanovic, Young, Huerter and Collins combined for 15 of Atlanta's team playoff record 20 3-pointers.
“Everybody can space and shoot free throws and create," said Collins. "And that’s very dangerous.”
Atlanta didn't even have De'Andre Hunter, a 23-year-old rising two-way threat. The right knee that limited the starting forward to 23 games during the regular season made him a game-time scratch for Game 1.
Hunter's absence boded well for Philadelphia's offense. The size and skill of Embiid, Harris and Simmons posed problems against a shaky Atlanta defense starting Solomon Hill alongside Bogdanovic and Young. Harris (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Simmons (17 points, 10 assists) both registered double-doubles, and Seth Curry added 21 points. That's 98 combined points for Philadelphia's four top scorers.
They needed more to compete with Atlanta's firepower.
Even Atlanta's playoff inexperience could not stand in the way of its offensive prowess. The Hawks led by as many as 25 points in the third quarter and coasted to a 99-83 lead entering the final frame. Six fourth-quarter turnovers, half of which contributed to an 11-0 Sixers run once Philadelphia extended its pressure full court, allowed the East's No. 1 seed to crawl within a single possession three times in the final minute.
Bogdanovic responded once with a 3-pointer. With the Hawks again facing an epic collapse 18 seconds later, Collins broke free to draw a clear-path foul. On the ensuing possession, Young lobbed a gutsy alley-oop to Collins, who threw down over Embiid and drew a foul. And when the Sixers drew within two in the last 10 seconds, Bogdanovic coolly drilled two free throws for Atlanta's 127th and 128th points of the night.
Atlanta is beginning to trust its offense as a juggernaut. If the Hawks shake off cobwebs formed from three straight playoff absences, Philadelphia could find itself in danger of losing another winnable playoff series.
“We came in believing ourselves," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said after a fifth win in six playoff games.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk set out to build this formidable offense when he left the Warriors in 2017, drafting Young as Atlanta's version of Stephen Curry to much criticism. While he still might prefer a mulligan for passing on Luka Doncic, Schlenk has achieved his mission. These Hawks will not stop scoring.
Young might not have Curry's off-ball ability, and Atlanta's offense may not look like the Warriors', but the Hawks just dropped 128 points in four quarters with relative ease in a playoff game — something Golden State's pre-Kevin Durant teams never accomplished. And they did it against an elite defense in the first conference semifinal test of Young's career. What's really scary is just how replicable those fireworks felt.
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