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Trae Young could be a Knicks killer and the villain the NBA needs

·6 min read
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The only thing more satisfying than seeing and hearing a Madison Square Garden crowd losing its collective mind was a similarly powerful hush following a stunning moment.

Atlanta’s Trae Young authored the first page in his playoff career in the most dramatic way possible — a winner with less than a second left to give the Hawks a 107-105 Game 1 win over the Knicks and some payback to the fans who chanted “F*** Trae Young.”

Spike Lee was back on the sideline and 15,000 thirsty souls were back in their basketball sanctuary, and it was Young’s duty to end the revival, to send them scurrying back to 33rd Street with a familiar feeling delivered by Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller in playoffs past.

He didn’t deliver the famous “choke sign” like Miller, but Young seems so much more equipped and willing to step into being the next NBA villain. Miller basked in it, and one could say made the Hall of Fame by torturing Knicks fans, famous and anonymous, through the 90s.

Young’s quieting the crowd shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Knicks-Hawks opener was the most thrilling of two days of wonderful playoff basketball, or that this looks to be a pretty evenly matched series.

Trae Young reacts and throws an arm up in the air.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young reacts during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks on May 23, 2021. (Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images)

But it would be so much better if he openly basked in this space, because he could own it — not just as a Knicks killer but across the league.

His detractors say he’s a Steph Curry knockoff but not as good, who shoots too much and doesn’t play winning basketball. His exaggeration of contact or downright hunting of fouls can make folks cringe, despite his legit ability.

So for whatever reason, he has drawn the ire.

“If I’m affecting them with my play that much that they hate me that much, I’m doing something right,” said Young, who scored 32 with 10 assists in his playoff debut. “It’s just a part of the game. I'm glad fans are back. I'm glad MSG was was rocking tonight. And I'm glad everybody got to come in and experience …”

Experience him, was the phrase unsaid but his face said it all, along with him noting the silence as he left the stage and walked the back hallways on the way to the locker room.

Once New York sees that, that rabid fan base will be in a lather it hasn’t been in since 1994. There have been players who’ve been villainized since then, but not in the way basketball needs a villain.

Perhaps Russell Westbrook has come close, but not quite. Stephen Jackson and the man previously known as Ron Artest certain qualify, but that’s because they delivered hands to fans in Detroit.

It feels like the NBA has more skilled and talented players than ever, but so many of them are likable players who love each other — especially after the veneer of competitive hate was smashed in this new culture of buddy ball — so there’s very few characters who don’t mind playing the foil.

“As I hit the floater, it just felt like everybody got quiet,” Young said. “I was waiting for those ‘eff you’ chants again. So I was excited.”

Kevin Durant and LeBron James became unwilling villains but never felt comfortable in those shoes, wanting to be loved more than anything — a key component in the manicured images produced by sponsors and shoe companies. Curry had great potential but stuck to toeing the line on the court while giving the subtleties off it.

Young should just lean into it, full stop, not because it separates him from all of the polish we see from today’s players, but it also will give the Hawks a much-needed identity.

Nobody will ever try to replicate the Bad Boy Pistons, it’s too much of a price to pay from the league. But for a franchise like the Atlanta Hawks, who in their best days were more of a cute side dish to main courses in bigger markets, Young could be laying the groundwork for a culture that could be followed organizationally.

Miller’s Pacers were never hated nationally, but he at least gave them a profile they didn’t have otherwise. Fans of opposing arenas showed up with signs, in anticipation of the next Miller moment — or Academy-winning flop that would draw their ire.

As long as it’s done in some sort of moderation, it can be great theater — with the fans as a key character in this unscripted production.

Trae Young gestures with three fingers.
Atlanta guard Trae Young should own the villain role and give the Hawks an identity. (Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images)

Nate McMillan already lit the flame, having to eat a $25,000 fine for saying the quiet part out loud: That the NBA would rather have the Knicks winning this playoff series than the Hawks. It’s now on Young to make Times Square his own, shatter those dreams and announce that his team isn’t a mere foil to the surprising Knicks. For days now, they’ve had to endure talk about the return of the MSG crowd, the “happy days are here again” tone about the Knicks even though nobody can really recall what the happy days were.

Don’t think that didn’t play a part in Young’s performance or the focused performance of his teammates in a hostile environment against an aggressive defense. They committed only six turnovers, shot a respectable 47% and survived several Knick runs with big shots from Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter before Young concluded matters on his late drive.

It’s possible they feed off Young’s confidence, even if they wouldn’t love it if they were on the receiving end.

McMillan is as old-school as they come, but you get the sense he throws his hands in the air sometimes as to say, “let Trae be Trae.”

“I don't want to take his fire, his instincts away. Play your game, play with confidence, have fun out there,” McMillan said. “He's a confident kid. I'm not going to handcuff him. Play your game, and I will coach you.”

Young didn’t want to focus on it so much after the game, knowing things will only ratchet from here. And the even-keeled McMillan will alert his team to the warning signs all around before Game 2, where the Hawks are 2.5-point underdogs, according to BetMGM

But admit it, you’re just as excited about the atmosphere as much as the specter of the next game.

That’s what good villains do.

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