ATLANTA — As the Atlanta Hawks’ season came to an end with a 118-107 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Trae Young walked off the court after the final buzzer sounded and shouted one message to the fans crowded around the tunnel next to Atlanta’s bench at State Farm Arena:
“We’ll be back.”
It was a final defiant message from Young, one of the breakout stars of these playoffs, after he finished with 14 points on 4-for-17 shooting in 40 minutes Saturday night in his return to action after sitting out Games 4 and 5 with a bone bruise in his right foot and a sprained right ankle.
“I feel like we’ll be back, and I meant it with my whole heart,” Young said.
Young, who had done no on-court work other than testing out his foot to try to play before each of the past three games, understandably looked winded and didn’t have his usual burst. But with Atlanta facing elimination with another loss, he did his best to try to extend his team’s season by another game.
“The message [to the team] was no regrets,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We don’t want no regrets after this game tonight, and we leave everything we have out on the floor.
“That’s what I saw from Trae. The fact that he hasn’t done anything on the floor since the injury, this was the first time that he has done anything live on the floor, so he was gassed.
“That was the message. No regrets at the end of this game. Empty your tank. I thought this group, they did.”
Young, who suffered the injuries when he inadvertently stepped on referee Sean Wright’s foot late in the third quarter of Game 3, said the bone bruise was located on his heel and that it impacted him whenever he tried to push off on it, either to shoot a floater or attack the rim.
But after testing his foot before Game 6 — a process he went through before Games 4 and 5 before deciding he couldn’t play — Young felt good enough to give it a shot.
Still, Young was a nonfactor for most of the first half. He made his first bucket on a floater with 4:56 to go in the first quarter. He then made a strong move through the defense to the rim for an easy layup after getting hit with a technical midway through the second for saying one too many things to veteran official Eric Lewis.
He went just 2-for-8 overall for five points in the first half, along with two assists and three turnovers. It was a trend that carried over to the second half.
“For me, not being able to be out there for my team for two games, and then tonight just wanting to battle and try to fight through it as much as I could and try to be out there for my team, it’s definitely frustrating not being healthy and not being able to give my full 100 percent,” Young said.
Ultimately, Young’s teammates didn’t provide much help, either. As a team, Atlanta shot just 41.3% from the field. Outside of a stunning shooting performance from second-year forward Cam Reddish, who scored 21 points on 6-for-7 shooting from 3-point range, the rest of the Hawks were 6-for-26 from deep.
A cold stretch at the start of the third quarter, in particular, proved fatal for the Hawks, as the Bucks went on a 13-2 run to start the second half to open a 15-point lead.
Atlanta spent the rest of the game trying to cut into that lead. The Hawks managed to get to within six with 3:41 remaining on a dunk by center Clint Capela. But Milwaukee responded with a Jrue Holiday layup, a defensive stop and a loose-ball foul on the Hawks that resulted in two Khris Middleton free throws, putting an end to any chance for Atlanta to keep its season alive.
A magical postseason run that saw the Hawks knock off two higher-seeded opponents — the fourth-seeded New York Knicks in five games and top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in seven — before ultimately falling to Milwaukee in six games finally came to an end.
“It’s a feeling I never really felt before,” said forward John Collins, who like several Hawks was making his first trip to the playoffs. “Obviously, feeling like we had a real chance to hold up that Larry O’Brien Trophy, coming up short, and understanding all the positive things we’ve done this year to help us get to this point, and all the things that I didn’t do or felt like I could have done harder or been locked in or more focused on are flooding in my mind as well.
“So it’s just a rush of a lot of emotions that I don’t necessarily understand how to process yet, but I can tell you that I’m proud of this group and the way we’ve battled and competed up to this point.”
It was only four months ago that Atlanta fired coach Lloyd Pierce, with the team sitting in 11th place in the East and sporting a 14-20 record. Not only did the Hawks immediately turn things around under McMillan, going 27-11 to end the regular season, they then stormed through the first two rounds of the playoffs before reaching the conference finals for just the second time in 50 years.
Along the way, Young morphed from a player who entered this postseason with questions surrounding his ability to raise his game in the playoffs, as well as his ability to handle being targeted on both offense and defense, to one who has not only survived the crucible that is the NBA playoffs but thrived in it.
“I think he’s built for this time of the season,” McMillan said. “You need a player that can create and put the ball in the basket, but create opportunities for his teammates, that has that confidence that he has shown out on the floor. He’s fearless. He doesn’t back down from anyone or any type of challenge. Teams have put bigger, physical players on him. Teams have double-teamed him. They’ve knocked him down. They’ve done a lot of things that you do to good players like that.
“This kid continues to take that and find ways to be productive. I’ve seen a lot of good players and great players in this league, and I think he has that potential. I really do think he has that potential. He gives everything he has when he’s out there on the floor. This guy is committed to winning. He’s committed to this team. He has a talent, a special talent that you need in order to have success this time of the year.”
The Hawks, meanwhile, enter the offseason with several questions, including the future of McMillan, who is all but certain to receive a long-term extension and get the interim tag removed from his title.
“I don’t see interim on his label here soon,” Young said with a smile, echoing the comments of every player who spoke postgame. “In my mind, I don’t think that will be a case that much longer.”
Beyond that, Atlanta has to figure out the long-term future of Collins, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, and both Young and Kevin Huerter — who also impressed in these playoffs — are up for possible contract extensions this offseason.
But with this stunning playoff run having come to a close, the Hawks feel confident that the future in Atlanta is very bright.
“This s— is hard,” Young said of winning in the playoffs. “It’s not easy. This whole thing is about experience. You have to go through it to — I mean, you really have to go through this. You see in the West, you see [Chris Paul] has never been to the Finals in his 16 years.
“This is hard. It’s not easy. You really have to go through it. I think what he did and what he’s been through really helped the Suns team, and what this team has been through with the Bucks, they’ve been to this point a couple times. I know that feeling, they didn’t want to go home again. I think for us we’ve got that same feeling now, and it’s the same thing.”