The Trae Young experience is quite a ride. There is perhaps nobody in the world right now who creates offense as easily or effectively as Young, who led the NBA in both total points and total assists this season. On Friday, Young ravaged the Cleveland Cavaliers for 38 points -- 32 in the second half -- as the Hawks qualified for the playoffs with a 107-101 play-in victory in Cleveland.
But for as breathtaking as Young was in the second half offensively, he was equally abominable on the defensive end in the first half. The Cavs hunted him every which way they could. He couldn't stay in front of anyone as the Cavaliers got into the paint at will, which led to a bevy of wide-open 3s as Atlanta was forced to collapse. He repeatedly lost his man off the ball. He's easier to screen than a kite. He didn't block out and gave up offensive boards. Delon Wright helped turn this game with his defense, doing what Young couldn't in making life tough on Darius Garland.
This is the Trae tradeoff: Every night the Hawks are betting that he's going to create more points than he's going to give up, either directly or indirectly. You can look at the plus-minus numbers to determine whether this tradeoff is benefitting the Cavs; the Hawks outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor this season, per Cleaning the Glass, scoring 119.3 points (93rd percentile) while giving up 116.1 (23rd percentile).
But this is regular season stuff. The playoffs, where the Hawks are headed, is an entirely different ballgame. The playoffs are about weaknesses as much, if not more, as they are strengths. The Miami Heat are going to seek out Young like the vulnerable prey he is. Can he create enough offense to put the Hawks in the red for the series? That's a tall order.
If it's not entirely out of the question, it's for two simple reasons: The Hawks have done a better job covering for Young this season, at least at times, than they did in the first half on Friday; in the second half Nate McMillan had the Hawks walling off penetrators with multiple defenders and the Cavs cooled off on kick-out 3s. The second reason, as stated, is that Young is an absolute magician with a basketball in his hands, and he has the "it" factor, however you choose to define that quality, in spades.
The bigger the game, the better this guy is going to get. He was literally unstoppable in the second half on Friday, and this was after he couldn't get to the rim and couldn't make shots in a six-point first half. He can just flip a proverbial switch like that. He's becoming inevitable if he's not fully there.
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I'm happy to be told I'm being a buzz kill here, trying to turn a performance like the one Young delivered on Friday into big-picture litigation of his leading-man potential. Can you win a title with Young as your best player? Can this offense-defense tradeoff carry the Hawks past actual contenders? I know what you're thinking: It did last season when the Hawks made it two wins from the Finals, but let's not ignore the matchups that facilitated that surprise run. The Knicks and Sixers were bad offensive teams incapable of punishing Trae on the perimeter.
Maybe this isn't the point after a night like Friday. Maybe Young, at this point in his career, is simply a Rembrandt artist meant to be appreciated for the rarity of his creations, like Michael Vick once was. Could he win you a title? Who cares, because there's nothing like watching him play.
I can assure you this isn't how the Hawks are looking at it. Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan don't give a rat's you know what if Young blisters teams for 50 if he gives up 52. The Hawks are only interested in that tradeoff netting a substantial positive on their ledger.
That's the thing: Trae can't just be a little bit of a positive. Other than Young, the Hawks are outmatched everywhere on the court against the No. 1 seed Heat, especially with Clint Capela's status in question after he hyperextended his knee on Friday. Young is going to have to be the best player in this series by an appreciable margin if the Hawks are going to have any chance of pulling an upset.
You can pencil his defense in as a major negative. Which leaves only one question: Just how brilliant can Young be on the offensive end? His ability seems limitless, as does his confidence, but probably the first 30 points, give or take, that Young creates via assists and his own buckets are going to be a wash with what he gives up, so he has to go BIG to come out on top. And he has to it four times. I don't think I would bet on it, but I sure can't wait to watch it.