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Trae Young’s sparkling playoff debut puts him in elite company, highlights rapidly maturing game

The New York Knicks had no answer for Trae Young on Sunday, particularly down the stretch, as the Atlanta Hawks pulled out a wild 107-105 victory to take a 1-0 series lead. With 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, Young, per Elias Sports, joins LeBron James, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose as the only players in history to post at least 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff debut. 

Young pulled the right pick-and-roll string virtually every time on Sunday. He weaved into the lane for his usual array of floaters. He finished through contact. He baited New York into fouls and went 9-for-9 from the line. He slung passes to corner shooters. He drew the defense and spoon-fed dunkers. 

He did it all in crunch time, every possession carrying do-or-die tension, with a roaring Madison Square Garden crowd reminding us what playoff basketball is supposed to feel like. 

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Finally, Young put a stamp on the biggest performance of his life, one that perfectly highlighted his rapidly maturing game, with the game-winning bucket with under a second remaining. 

“When you’re in a zone, and everybody’s chanting F-U … it got real quiet at the end,” Young said in his postgame interview with the TNT studio crew. “For me, I wanted to hear those F-U chants again.”

Young has positively villainous blood. Ever the small guy, he’s had to play cocky his whole life. He taunts crowds. He infuriates you with floppy foul-drawing tactics. Young has a long way to go before we invoke the Shakespearean Reggie Miller’s name, but there aren’t many players who have, on a playoff stage, taken theatrical ownership of the Garden like that. When Young walks onto the floor for Game 2, the energy of this series will have officially gone electric. 

And Atlanta now has a decided edge. Over 76 percent of teams that win Game 1, home or away, of a best-of-seven series, go on to win the series. That Atlanta did it on the road tilts the scale further. But it’s Young that looks like the real difference-maker. Julius Randle had an All-NBA season, but Young looks like the best player in this series. 

That’s not an overreaction to Randle’s 6-for-23 showing on Sunday. He’ll be better. Young just controls the game at an entirely different level, and he’s no longer going to neutralize his own talents by beating himself. That’s the aforementioned maturity. It was on full display on Sunday, when Young committed just two turnovers and shot just three 3-pointers.

In the past, amid all the offensive genius, there was always a hair-brained pass, an ill-advised moon shot or six, that made you wonder whether Young’s game was built more for stats or substance. Now we know it’s both. He’s not a great shooter, as I’ve pointed out. He’s never shot better than 36 percent from 3 for a season, including his lone college campaign. League average is 35 percent from 3. Young shot 34.7 percent this season. 

But he cut his attempts from 9.5 per game last year to 6.3 per game this year, and more specifically, he trimmed his early clock bombs, which too often hijacked possessions before they could even start, nearly in half. That’s partly because he’s suddenly surrounded by more capable scorers and playmakers, but a lot of 22-year-olds with Young’s talent, who’ve already established themselves as an All-Star, wouldn’t so willingly curb their own instincts. 

That’s genuine growth. Sunday was just one game, but don’t think there weren’t questions as to whether Young’s game could translate to a playoff setting. Well, it can. It did. And it will continue to do so. He’s not going to be so defensively detrimental that you can’t keep him on the court. He’s not going to shoot you out of the game. He is going to be in total control from start to finish. 

On the final play, I love that Young waved off the ball screen that is too often automatic in late-game possessions. He didn’t want to invite the second defender. He attacked away from the help and beat Frank Ntilikina to the right. That is sizing up a situation on the fly, under immense pressure, and coming up with intellectual aces. For all the sizzle in Young’s game, that’s old-fashioned point guard stuff. 

For years, Young has heard the Hawks screwed up by choosing him over Luka Doncic. He’s had run-ins with teammates about the way he was running the offense (notably the early-clock 3s that froze everyone else out). He hasn’t let any of it get in his way. He has gracefully handled the doubts, the Doncic comparisons, the early season struggles in Atlanta. And now here he is, on perhaps the biggest basketball stage in the world, hitting game-winners and generally dominating a top-five defense. 

Indeed, Trae Young has arrived. And New York is on notice.