Michael Cunningham: To make playoffs, short-handed Hawks need Trae Young to be great

Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Basketball

ATLANTA — Trae Young needs to be extraordinary for the Hawks to advance to the playoffs. It will take more than only that, but if Young isn’t great, then those things won’t matter. Young is the one who can make the parts add up to a greater whole and deliver two upset road victories in the play-in tournament, starting Wednesday in Chicago.

That wouldn’t be too much to ask of Young under normal circumstances. The Hawks are 3-0 in play-in games with Young, including two road victories as underdogs. Young was good in all those games, but now he’s just returning to the lineup after seven weeks on the injured list following hand surgery.

Young said he’s ready to play “close to my (usual) minutes” after ramping up over the final three games of the regular season. That would be a big boost for the Hawks. I think it just won’t be enough because three key players are out with injuries. Hawks decision-makers made matters worse by declining to convert sharpshooter Vit Krejci’s two-way contract, making him ineligible for the postseason.

The Hawks will go to Chicago with Young in less-than peak condition and with only four other rotation-quality players available.

“It’s tough, obviously, but you just play the cards you are dealt,” Young said. “I’m a player, so I’m going to do my job and make sure I go out there and try to give my best and try to get our team to win. I can only do what I’m capable of and what I control.

“I feel like we can still win with the guys we have. That’s my mentality, and I’m going to go out there and try to do it.”


The Hawks have a better chance with Young. He’s helped them beat long odds before.

Young was the best player on the floor when they won two series as underdogs to advance to the 2021 East finals. The Hawks won two play-in games to make the 2022 playoffs with Young as the catalyst. Last year, Young led the Hawks to an impressive play-in victory at Cleveland to advance to the playoffs before giving the top-seeded Celtics trouble in the first round, including a sensational performance at Boston in Game 5.

The issue for the Hawks now is that two players who helped during that run, Onyeka Okongwu and Saddiq Bey, are out. Worse for the Hawks: Jalen Johnson is out, too. He’d become a third dribble-pass-and-shoot playmaker to go with Young and Dejounte Murray. Johnson is the team’s most athletic forward and its most versatile defender.

The Hawks have a puncher’s chance because of Young’s return and the nature of the Play-In. They don’t need to be good for a series. They only need to win two games. If the Hawks beat the Bulls, then they’ll play the loser of Heat-76ers on Friday. The winner of that game earns the No. 8 seed and a seven-game series against the top-seeded Celtics.


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