With Young built for playoffs, Hawks soar into second round

NEW YORK (AP) — Trae Young was preparing for his first postseason when a message popped into his phone.

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

It was a nice gesture. Also, an unnecessary one.

“He didn’t tell me nothing I didn’t already know,” Young said. “I have confidence in myself. I know I’m built for this.”

His team might be, too.

The Hawks soared into the second round by beating the New York Knicks in five games. Atlanta wrapped the series up with a 103-89 victory on Wednesday night and will play top-seeded Philadelphia in its first appearance in the Eastern Conference semifinals since 2016.

Just 14-20 when they fired Lloyd Pierce on March 1, the Hawks are 32-12 since. They had the best record in the East 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. But Atlanta dominated from there, 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 crowd that had jeered him in every game after hitting a 3-pointer with under a minute to play.

Even while cursed at and even spat on by a fan in Game 2, he was never rattled by the New York crowd. He probably won’t be now by the notoriously tough fans in Philadelphia.

“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 on him.

The Knicks’ defense, which limited teams to the fewest points per game and lowest shooting percentage during the regular season, was never able to corral Young.

Now it’s Philadelphia’s 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.”

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