A little less than a minute into Sunday’s first-round series opener between the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and the first-seeded Miami Heat, Atlanta’s Trae Young brought the ball up the right side of the floor, threw a couple of fruitless dribbles at Miami’s Kyle Lowry, and hucked up a 25-footer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. I’ve watched the replay a handful of times and couldn’t say for sure whether the ball touched the rim or just the backboard: Whatever it ricocheted off of, it did so at like 75 miles an hour. He might as well have drop-kicked it from half-court. He could scarcely have surrendered a possession more totally if he’d spent it buying a hot dog.
On the Hawks’ next possession, after Miami’s Bam Adebayo switched onto the ball at the top of the key, Young very inadvisably picked up his dribble around 28 feet from the hoop before nearly committing a turnover by floating an ill-advised pass to a heavily guarded Danilo Gallinari over Adebayo’s longer arms. A couple possessions later, once again with Adebayo switched onto him, Young again needlessly picked up his dribble on the perimeter. This time, he inexplicably flung a simultaneously hopeless and rushed eephus ball toward, but short of, a well-covered Onyeka Okongwu in the middle of the lane, and this time it did result in a turnover. A minute after that, the Hawks bizarrely ran a pair of staggered screens at the top of the key to again get Young matched up with Adebayo—you might think it was the matchup they wanted, but for the fact that their star kept barfing down his shirtfront every time they got it. In this instance, Young freaked out, picked up his dribble again, panic-dumped the ball on Kevin Huerter in the corner with Lowry hanging all over him, and retreated to midcourt.
Young took his next shot attempt with around five and a half minutes left in the first quarter, another weirdly frantic dribble-dribble-dribble stepback three early in the shot-clock, this time in front of Miami’s totally un-fooled Max Strus, who pretty hilariously just kind of stood there with his arm up the entire time. This one definitely hit the rim and not the backboard, which is about all that can be said of it.
The whole game went like this for Young, save for a slick and-one finish in transition near the end of the first quarter, which turned out to be his only field goal on the night. He dribbled when he should have passed, picked up his dribble when he should have kept it alive, shot when he should have done anything else, and panicked just about every time he saw Bam Adebayo in front of him. In the second quarter Young found himself all alone around 30 feet from the hoop after Miami’s Gabe Vincent opted not to stick with him through a step-back dribble out near midcourt; he took several seconds to enjoy the view, and then bashed a set shot harmlessly off the back of the rim. In the third quarter, trailing by 22, he brought the ball up in transition, dribbled right into Lowry’s wingspan, and fired a 28-foot punt off the front of the hoop with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. It was his last shot of the game; he sat out the fourth quarter, and the Hawks lost by 24, 115-91. In total, Young shot 1-for-12, missed all seven of his three-point attempts, and turned the ball over six times against four assists. That was just at the offensive end; it scarcely warrants mentioning that the Heat generated plenty of their 115 points by targeting one of the NBA’s most vulnerable defenders.
That the East’s well-rested top seed won its series opener at home against a team that spent the past week battling through a pair of play-in games is no shock, nor is it especially surprising that the always streaky best player on the conference’s lowest playoff seed had one very terrible road game. The point here is not to advance any particular analytical angle—let’s agree that the Hawks are not likely to win any game or playoff series in which their best player and highest-volume user of possessions shoots eight percent from the floor—but rather to observe Trae Young’s perhaps unique capacity, among bona fide star NBA players, to look like a complete and total bozo on an off night.
Surely this is at least in part an artifact of Young’s being very tiny and playing with borderline-lunatic self-assurance at all times. When those Hail Mary chest-pass shots go in—which is honestly not all that often given how frequently he pumps them up, and with how much evident confidence he does so, but as the New York Knicks well know sometimes Young will flush a bunch of them in quick succession and suddenly your season is over—you are left with no choice but to marvel at his gumption. When they do not, what you marvel at is the sequence of slapstick arena security meltdowns implicit in this hilariously optimistic little kid’s presence on the court during a professional game.
In between and around those silly heat-checks, though, at his best Young has the patience and presence of mind to keep his dribble alive against slower opponents—and all opponents are slower than him—and use his unparalleled quickness to dart into the middle of the defense and make it collapse around him. When he gets there, he has the vision, creativity, deftness, and touch to make any of a hundred good things happen. Those traits combine to make him one of the NBA’s most fun shows, and in a thousand years you would never guess that the frantic little guy making absolutely every single wrong decision on Sunday possessed any of them. You might not believe he had ever played much basketball before in his whole life!
Afterward, in Young’s charmingly upbeat Q-and-A session, a reporter asked whether he attributed the nightmare Game 1 to “tired legs, or was it something that [the Heat] did on the defensive side that was tough for shots to fall,” and he wisely granted both:
“I think it was a little bit of both. I mean we played less than 48 hours ago, one o’clock game, um, I mean having to win three games straight to really just get to this point, two on the road—I mean you can definitely feel, I mean, talking to guys you can definitely feel the heavy legs. But you gotta give them credit, they came out aggressive, they were off and they came out with a lot of energy and they fed off the energy from the crowd, and just made some shots and made plays, so you gotta give them credit too.”
That all seems reasonable to me; at any rate I’m sure he knows better than I do. In that case I recommend plenty of rest and relaxation before Tuesday night’s Game 2, and also, I dunno, maybe swinging the ball around a little bit?