ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
AP photo by Wendell Cruz / Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young waves to the crowd after making a 3-pointer against the host New York Knicks on Wednesday night.

NEW YORK — Trae Young was preparing for his first NBA playoff series when a message popped into his phone.

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan wanted to tell the 22-year-old point guard he was built for this time of year, the kind of praise that can build a young player's confidence as he heads into unfamiliar territory.

It was a nice gesture — and apparently an unnecessary one.

"He didn't tell me nothing I didn't already know," said Young, the former Oklahoma Sooners star drafted fifth overall in 2018. "I have confidence in myself. I know I'm built for this."

His team might be, too.

The fifth-seeded Hawks soared into the next round by beating the fourth-seeded New York Knicks in five games. Atlanta wrapped the first-round series up with a 103-89 victory on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2016.

Atlanta's best-of-seven series against the Philadelphia 76ers begins Sunday.

Just 14-20 when they fired third-year coach Lloyd Pierce on March 1, the Hawks are 32-12 since. They had the best record in the Eastern Conference after McMillan took over, and Young said he isn't satisfied with just one series victory.

"I know what this team is capable of, and like I've been saying all year, we have a squad and a team that can surprise a lot of people," Young said. "But we're not going to surprise ourselves, because we know what we're capable of."

The Knicks beat them in all three meetings during the regular season, and the teams split the first two games of the series in New York. Atlanta dominated from there, though, winning each of the last three games by double digits.

The key was Young, who averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in the series. He closed it out with 36 points and nine assists, bowing to the Madison Square Garden crowd — which had jeered him in every game — after hitting a 3-pointer with less than a minute to play Wednesday night.

Despite being cursed at — and even spat on by a fan in Game 2 — he was never rattled in New York. He probably won't be shaken by the notoriously tough fans in Philadelphia, either.

"Some respond better than others. Some have different responses. Trae feeds right into it," Hawks forward John Collins said. "He wants the pressure. He wants the spotlight. He thrives in it."

The Hawks are much more than just Young. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau credited the Hawks for finding shooters to put around him, which keeps the floor spaced for Young's drives into the lane and lobs to center Clint Capela or passes to open teammates at the 3-point line when defenders close in on the 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard.

The Knicks, who limited teams to the fewest points per game and lowest shooting percentage during the regular season, were never able to corral Young. Now it's the 76ers' turn to try.

"He's the key," McMillan said. "He's the guy who sets our tempo. He's a fearless player. Every game he brings and leaves everything he has out on the floor. Tonight we needed that. We wanted our guys to be the aggressors. It starts with Trae."

The Sixers are four-point favorites to win Sunday's opener, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but trying to win their first NBA championship since 1983 without Joel Embiid for a lengthy stretch — the franchise center is day to day with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee — would be just about insurmountable.

"We definitely want him back," All-Star guard Ben Simmons said. "If he can't go, he can't go. He's going to be ready when he's going to be ready."

Embiid was a spectator as the Sixers closed out their first-round series against the Washington Wizards in five games with a 129-112 win Wednesday night. Coach Doc Rivers said he won't rush back Embiid and wants him close to full strength with minimal risk of further injury before he takes the court.

"I don't know when or how early," Rivers said. "I'm hopeful. I think that's a better way of putting it."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT