In theory, there were two superstars on the court Friday night at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Trae Young and Julius Randle were the only players on their teams to appear in this season’s All-Star Game. Both had big-time regular seasons, the kind of performances that carried their franchises to the playoffs for the first time in years.
But three games into the first-round playoff series between Atlanta and the Knicks, a huge and disturbing gap has emerged between the two. While Young has done just about everything you could want from an elite player in the postseason, Randle has disappeared.
Randle, who averaged 24.1 points in the regular season, has scored 15, 15 and 14 points in his three playoff games. Friday night’s game, a 105-94 loss that gave the Hawks a 2-1 lead in the series, was his worst and most painful, given that he couldn’t get any scoring support from RJ Barrett.
When the Knicks needed to send a message in their first playoff game on the road, Randle shot 2-for-15. That makes him 13-for-54 overall and 6-for-20 from three-point range in the series.
Contrast that with Young, who played the first two games under extreme pressure. In both games, he was the subject of an obscene chant that seemed to fire him up more than bother him in Game 1. In Game 2, a Knicks fan spit on him, which caused a furor across the NBA.
Young scored 32 in Game 1, including the game-winner. He scored 30 in Atlanta’s Game 2 loss. But in Game 3, when it mattered most, he was the most masterful.
Young shredded a defense that was No. 1 in the league in the regular season, finishing with 21 points, 14 assists and two turnovers. When the Knicks’ defense made it difficult for him to score, he did exactly what Randle was not able to do: He set up his teammates.
Young was responsible for 36 of the Hawks’ 58 points in the first half between his 14 points and 10 assists. He also did not have a turnover in the first half, and the Hawks put together a 22-3 run just before the end of the half.
"I felt like as the game was going, they were trying to take away my scoring and blitzing more," Young said. "I gotta find ways to score, whether it’s me getting downhill and scoring or finding the open man. It’s really just making the right reads."
Said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau: "I don’t think we ever got our defense going in this game . . . I want to take a look at what happened in the second quarter. We didn’t close the second the way I would have liked. It gave them [the Hawks] confidence and changed the game."
Young, playing in his first home playoff game, clearly enjoyed his team’s success. In the final minutes of the game — with Atlanta fans chanting "MVP!" and an obscene cheer about New York — Young practically skipped around the court in the final minute, gleefully yelling at the crowd.
"It feels good. It feels great," Young said of the win. "I have worked hard to get to this position. I prepared, it feels like, my whole life for this state and these moments."
Young seems to know that big-time players have to come up big-time in big-time games.
Young and the Hawks clearly are in the driver’s seat as they prepare for Game 4 on Sunday in Atlanta. The Knicks, meanwhile, have to figure out a way to get their top player to score the way he did in the regular season.
Can Randle bounce back? Said Thibodeau, "I’m very confident."