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‘It’s only going to make me better:’ Hawks’ Trae Young on series vs. Heat

By Sarah K. Spencer

ATLANTA —Trae Young normally takes one month off at the start of each offseason to recharge and regroup.

This time around, he took only a week off before getting back in the gym, where he’ll continue his routine through the end of the NBA playoffs.

“Because that’s where I want to play,” Young told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, two weeks and one day after the Hawks’ Game 5 defeat to the Heat, with the Hawks’ first-round exit feeling like a letdown after Young spearheading last year’s epic run to the Eastern Conference finals.

One of the biggest disappointments was not just that the No. 8-seed Hawks lost to the No. 1-seed Heat — it was the way they lost, with Young, normally a dynamite offensive player, taken out of his game. Young, 23, isn’t the first young star to struggle in a playoff series, and NBA history has seen many of those players use that adversity as a springboard.

That’s Young’s plan.

“I think it’s gotta be,” Young said. “It’s happened for a lot of the guys who’ve won championships and all the big-time players that’s come before me, throughout this whole league. Everybody has to go through something to push through, to get to that next step. I think this could be that thing.”

Reflecting on that series, he views it as a learning experience, one of many chapters he’ll have throughout his NBA career.

“I think this is just a learning experience in the early chapter stage of my career that I needed to go through,” Young said. “The Heat did a great job, their defensive schemes, placement, where their guys were, switching it up, making it difficult. Just looking back at some of the mistakes I had, I know I’m going to learn from them, and it’s only going to make me better, and I think that’s a scary thing, if I’m young and I still have a lot to grow from. I think it’s a good thing that I can learn from it.”

Young can break down the X’s and O’s of why he struggled to get going against Miami’s stout defense (more on that later). But moving forward, he feels learning from that series is more mental than anything else.

“It’s more about mentally and what I was in the moment, remember from the game but also some of the moments that they’re still showing of bad plays that I made, certain things like that, and bragging about their Heat defense, you know what I’m saying?” Young said. “It’s little things like that that I still see. It’s like, I can get better, and I know I will.”

“... You can’t let somebody defeat you the same way twice,” Young added.

The roster around him may look different next season, with general manager Travis Schlenk and principal owner Tony Ressler both making comments on how bringing a nearly identical group back from that Eastern Conference finals run may not have been wise.

The East has gotten much tougher, and the Hawks will have to keep up.

And, the series vs. the Heat isn’t the only thing that Young and the Hawks need to learn from. They also put themselves in a tough position, starting the season 17-25 before finishing 26-14 from Jan. 17 onward.

Part of that was a much tougher schedule to start the season, going out West twice, but a better start is a must if the Hawks want to nab a higher seed and avoid the risk and tough schedule draw that comes with the play-in tournament. Anyhow, that wasn’t the start most expected, with expectations soaring.

“Our toughest part of our schedule was early, and I think next year, just focusing on having a better start, that’s gotta be one of the main focus points because that gets you off to a good lead, and it keeps the confidence high with in your team, if you string together a lot of wins, too,” Young said.

“... I think now, since we’ve made and kind of jumped ahead of schedule in a lot of people’s eyes, I think expectations of us, from everybody, has risen, obviously. Even if it was always high for us and for myself, it’s really for everybody else. I know we’re going to be judged based off the playoffs and I think going forward I think that needs to be the mindset, just taking care of business in the regular season and so when the playoffs happen, you’re in a higher position.”

Then came the series against the Heat, a bad matchup for the Hawks given Miami’s switching defense and physicality. As the Heat smothered Young, the only time someone else made shots to stretch out the defense and find success was the fourth quarter of Game 3, the Hawks’ lone win in the series, when wing Bogdan Bogdanovic started making 3s.

With some of the pressure off him, Young scored 10 points in the final four minutes to polish off the victory. Ultimately, though, Young finished with 15.4 points, six assists, five rebounds and 6.2 turnovers per game in the series, shooting 18.4% from 3-point range and 31.9% from the field.

That’s after Young had likely his best regular season, averaging 28.4 points and 9.7 assists per game, shooting a career-best 38.2% from 3-point range and 46% from the field, averaging four turnovers. His free-throw attempts went down by 1.4 per game to 7.3 with the new rule change, but his scoring overall went up by 3.1 points per game, so it didn’t have the detrimental effect some expected.

The Heat posed a much different challenge than the three teams the Hawks faced in last year’s playoffs, defeating the Knicks 4-1 and 76ers 4-3 before losing to the Bucks in six. Young could play more in pick-and-roll and get into the paint and get to his floater, or shoot 3s, with those bigs in more of a drop coverage.

“Whenever you play the Heat and they have Bam (Adebayo) and they’re switching all those guys up, you’re not necessarily able to get into the paint and that’s where the NBA’s trying to get to, is switching 1-5,” Young said. “... That was kind of the most frustrating part was to not be able to have those types of creases and gaps where I could get a ball screen and get into the paint and do that.

“But I think whenever you’ve got, like Game 3 when we had guys knocking down shots left and right and guys were getting rebounds and getting in transition, that’s how you beat that, before they get back on defense. And we just weren’t able to do that enough. We were able to have spurts, but we just weren’t able to do that enough to beat them. And I think that’s kind of what you’ve got to do to beat that type of defense.”

We’ll have to wait and see how the Hawks improve the roster in the offseason, but the series against the Heat highlighted how the Hawks could use another go-to ballhandler to pair with Young.

The entire season, really, highlighted the need for more physicality and perimeter defense.

“I think we’ve all just got to get better in certain ways,” Young said of what the Hawks need to do to bounce back next season. “Obviously, we don’t know who’s all going to be back. We’ve all heard comments from Travis and Tony and guys like that, so we don’t know who’s all going to be back, but the guys who do return, to just be a little bit better version of themselves, that’s all we can ask for.”

Despite the setback against the Heat, Young’s confidence in what the Hawks can do next season is high.

“Obviously it’s always been high, even when others’ weren’t,” Young said. “So I’m very motivated. To be honest, I’m probably more motivated than I’ve ever been to start playing, and it’s going to be a great year, just in general. I’m looking forward to it.”

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