The play call for the final Hawks possession of Sunday’s thrilling Game 1 win over the Knicks at a jumping Madison Square Garden (crowds rule!) involved John Collins setting a ball-screen for Trae Young. Most NBA defenses automatically switch all ball-screens in late-game scenarios, but that’s where Young and Collins present particular challenges: Young is one of the NBA’s genuinely terrifying off-the-dribble shooters, and the high-flying Collins is both a dangerous lob threat and a 40 percent three-point shooter. With old man Taj Gibson assigned to Collins and well-meaning Frank Ntilikina picking Young up well in the backcourt, a well-executed high screen would almost certainly present a positional crossmatch and a scenario where the Knicks would need to send help flying in one direction or another, leaving one of Atlanta’s very good shooters open along the perimeter for a high-quality catch-and-shoot opportunity at a game-winner.
Probably what Hawks head coach Nate McMillan had in mind was Young either sprinting at a frantically retreating Gibson or sensing a high trap and slipping a quick pass to Collins on the short roll—that delicious area around the free-throw line where heady roll men get a chance to run a 4-on-3—and the ball ending up in the hands of, say, Danilo Gallinari in the corner for a clean jumper. For an NBA offense against a playoff defense, that’s a great outcome! That outcome was undermined and ultimately undone by two events, neither of which was the result of smart planning by Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau or crisp execution from the ferocious Knicks defense. The first involved veteran Lou Williams, McMillan’s own troop, pulling Young aside and basically handwaving away the more Hoosiers-esque possibilities of the play-call. Williams’s advice to Young coming out of the timeout that setup the final sequence: “Don’t pass the ball.”
“I’m sure he’s dreamed of moments like that,” Williams said. “Tie ball game in Madison Square Garden with an opportunity to win the game. … You kind of trick yourself into thinking you gotta make a play. Hey man, go win the basketball game. This your team. These guys have put the franchise on your shoulders as well as the other young guys. You’re the ‘Point God,’ go win the basketball game.”ESPN
A coach’s job is to think in terms of probabilities—which set, which action, which likely reaction and which set of counters will produce the likeliest chance of a positive outcome—and the coach who too often takes into account the raw juice and narrative coolness of a young gun hunting and bagging a legend-making moment is probably not long for the job. It takes a player, and probably a player with Sweet Lou’s own prodigious shot-making track record, to sense that Sunday afternoon presented an opportunity to block out all the tactical complexity of high-level basketball and reduce the game to the raw reflexes and pure improvisational style of one guy just fuckin’ putting it on the guy guarding him and getting a bucket.
Getting this bitchin’ advice from a legitimately cool-as-hell veteran didn’t necessarily guarantee that Young would scrap the offense and just win the game on his own. For one thing, Young is a natural playmaker with an instinct for sensing and exploiting the passing lanes he opens up by penetrating the defense. For another, looking off several open teammates in order to chase personal glory in your first career playoff game is dicey territory: Fling up a bad shot and miss and you have written a story about yourself that you very much do not want told. Even with Lou’s words echoing in his head, Young still might’ve gone through the motions and wound up a spectator. And that might’ve been the right call!
But here is where the cosmos intervened to make sure that would not happen. With Kevin Huerter inbounding the ball and Young stationed in the backcourt, Collins lost his balance tussling with Gibson for position near the top of the key, went to the floor, and lost his left shoe. However fine an athlete Collins might be, you simply do not want a one-shoed man involved at the point-of-attack in a do-or-die late-game scenario. Time waits for no shoe: Huerter passed the ball in to Young, Ntilikina leapt out to pester him, and Collins had no choice but to abandon his wayward footwear, right at the three-point line, just about as inconveniently positioned as possible. With 9.8 seconds on the clock, Young glanced at his shoeless teammate, made a snap determination, waved the screen away, and went to work on Ntilikina:
A delightfully relieved Collins indicated after the game that before his shoe came off and threw a wrench into the works, the inbounds pass was actually supposed to go to him, leading to a dribble-hand-off with Young. “I tried to release myself off I think it was Taj to try to get the ball,” Collins told assembled media. “I don’t even know what happened but I know he grabbed the hell out of me, and it stopped me in my tracks so much that my shoe slipped off in the middle of the possession.” Collins came to his feet “kind of confused” and was immediately waved off by Young. “It actually kind of helped, maybe just a little bit, because somebody’s shoe coming off is rare, and we took advantage.”
Maybe the confusion helped. Maybe Gibson stepping on Collins’s abandoned shoe when he slid over to cut off a driving lane helped. Who can say? In any case, the permission from a veteran teammate—Young said it “clicked in my mind” when he saw Collins wandering around without a shoe—and the wardrobe malfunction created the opening for an extremely cool young player to wipe the script away and do some cool shit, and the outcome is all the better for it. A Gallinari spot-up for the win off of crisp ball-movement would’ve been earned and fine, but a slick isolation bucket from the game’s most dynamic player was correct. Way to go, universe.