PHILADELPHIA — Trae Young's early smackdown of the Philadelphia 76ers put the Atlanta Hawks in control Sunday afternoon, and the star point guard finished the win with a lob for a one-handed dunk by John Collins, who punched the air in celebration.
Then the visitors took a moment to exhale after a hefty lead was nearly squandered.
"Thank God we were up 20," Atlanta guard Kevin Huerter said.
Young scored 25 of his 35 points in the first half as the Hawks shook off Sixers star Joel Embiid and a hostile crowd, holding on to beat top-seeded Philadelphia 128-124 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series opener.
"The confidence in all these guys is high," said Young, who led the fifth-seeded Hawks past the fourth-seeded Knicks in five games in the first round of the NBA playoffs. "We're out here playing for each other. Out here having fun. Everyone's locked in."
Game 2 is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Borrowing some showmanship from professional wrestling, Embiid raised a sledgehammer as he returned after sitting out Philadelphia's previous game due to a cartilage tear in his right knee. He walked out with WWE star Triple H to a roaring ovation at Wells Fargo Arena.
Young and the Hawks had the Sixers down for the count from the jump and led by 26 points. The Sixers — playing in front of their biggest crowd of the season at 18,624 — refused to easily cede home-court advantage, though, and Embiid scored consecutive baskets that brought them within three points with 1:01 left.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, who missed all three games in the regular-season series against the 76ers with a knee injury, steadied the Hawks when he buried a 3 that gave them needed breathing room. He even put his fingers to his lips and shushed the raucous crowd for good measure.
"He's a big shot maker," Huerter said.
That wasn't the only long shot that went off successfully.
Listed as five-point underdogs by FanDuel Sportsbook, the Hawks made 14 of their first 18 shots and were the aggressors, eagerly seizing their moment on national television. Young thrived in the spotlight, much like he did when he averaged 29.2 points against the Knicks in the first round. For all the focus on Embiid — whose status was unclear until Sunday — All-Star guard/forward Ben Simmons and the rest of the Sixers, Young was the can't miss player on this day.
As in, he rarely did with the ball, and all eyes were on him.
The Hawks used a 17-0 run in the first half — they hit 20 3s overall — and Young was shaking, saluting and toying with the Sixers and the crowd. Young bowed during the clincher to the New York crowd that had jeered him in every game. He struck a pose on Sunday, too, holding his right arm high and pointing toward the basket for several seconds after burying a 27-footer to close the first half.
"They hit us in the mouth to start the game," Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. "They were the more physical team. They were the more aggressive team. They played harder early."
Danny Green could not hang as the primary defender on Young instead of Simmons, an NBA defensive player of the year candidate. Simmons said he wanted his shot for a full 40 minutes on Young, and the Hawks expected a shift in strategy.
"Eventually, he'll see some time on a guy who's hot," interim coach Nate McMillan said.
Young, drafted fifth overall in 2018, led the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and has craved the pressure that comes with playing postseason games in big markets.
One Knicks fan spit on Young during the first-round series, and he was jeered in all three games at Madison Square Garden. On Sunday, he heard "Trae is balding! Trae is balding!" chants that dimmed with each 3-pointer — he hit four of those and had 10 assists — and waved off fans with a 3 that cut off a small run by the hosts in the third quarter.
Embiid answered the question about whether he would play when he walked out for pregame introductions in matching T-shirts with a star wrestler — Triple H's D-Generation X faction was Embiid's favorite — and had the packed house going wild as he held the sledgehammer high over his head.
Embiid did his part with 39 points and nine rebounds in 38 minutes. Embiid, who sat out the Game 5 clincher against Washington on Wednesday after he sustained a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee last Monday, grimaced at times against the Hawks. He also hit the floor hard when he lunged at Collins and fouled him.
"Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy," Embiid said. "The pain is going to be there. That's normal. It's about managing it."
Tobias Harris had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Simmons scored 17 points and again struggled with free throws, going 3-for-10 at the line, part of a 24-for-35 showing by his team. Philadelphia was 10-for-29 from 3-point range.
Bogdanovic and Collins each scored 21 points for the Hawks, who set franchise playoff records for points in a half (74) and 3-pointers in a half (13) with their outburst before intermission.
The Sixers made easy work of Washington, and with home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, a potential date with the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets seemed to be in the cards. Sixers fans chanted "We want Brooklyn!" as they wrapped up the first-round series.
But they forgot about Trae.
The Hawks were just 14-20 when the team fired coach Lloyd Pierce on March 1; they're 33-12 since. They posted the best record in the East in the stretch after McMillan took over, and Young said he isn't satisfied with just one series victory.
The Sixers made them work for it in a furious fourth quarter, but the Hawks held on and gave their fans something to feel good about.
"All the individual stuff is for the birds," Young said. "All we care about is wins."