The dizzying seven-game series between the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers went down to the wire. In the end, as it was throughout, it proved to be nothing more than a tale of two point guards.
In one corner you had Trae Young, a player who hardly needed a pep talk and encouraging pat on the back even before three straight 30-points games in the cauldron that is Madison Square Garden. We know how that series went, with ‘Ice Trae’ quickly becoming the de facto supervillain of the league and bowing goodbye to New York after a dagger three to eliminate the Knicks in five games.
This is a 22-year-old, 6ft 1in point guard remember, probably the most featherweight player in the league, and yet already the voice, brain and heart of this way-ahead-of-the-curve Atlanta Hawks team gate-crashing the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite the obvious disadvantage he has in both size and stature, Young plays the game his own way, shades of Steph Curry in every pull-up logo three and no-look dish to the rim-rocking Clint Capela.
The difference – and it is a sizeable one – is that Curry does it with a grin; Young does it with a grimace. All while barking at everyone. The bigs he’s skinning alive on the perimeter, the referees, every single opposing fan in the arena. The more Young senses resistance and hostility, the more he ramps up the antagonism. He feeds off it. Every whistle and boo fuels him in a way that indifference never could.
In essence, he’s the NBA’s bogeyman under the bed. Ignore him, pay him no mind, and starved of the attention he craves Young will start resorting to increasingly outlandish measures to crawl back under your skin. The jump shots into contact more exaggerated, more desperate. The passes more daring, the dribble pull-ups from even further back.
If you decide to take a long look at what’s making all that racket, however, don’t expect him to leave anytime soon. Nor go quietly.
Which brings us to Ben Simmons, the 6ft 10in point forward and Young’s direct antithesis. Whereas the Hawks’ talisman puffs his chest out and inflates to twice the size in every high-stakes moment under the spotlight, Simmons shrinks.
Game 7, which ended with Atlanta advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2015, encapsulated this.
Throughout the first half, Young was a disastrous 1-12 from the field, even as the Hawks held a scarcely-believable two-point lead.
Simmons, on the other hand, was shooting 50 per cent, a full 42 per cent improvement on his counterpart. The problem was that he had still only made the same number of field goals – one – and had seven points less than Young, who was still getting to the line even as his shot wasn’t falling.
Simmons’ longstanding fear of the foul line has been well documented but this series was the true nadir. He shot 33 per cent on free-throws across seven games against the Hawks and 34 per cent throughout the playoffs – the lowest post-season mark in NBA history.
For comparison, Young essentially shot the same (33 per cent) from three-point range on an even greater number of attempts per game. There, right there, is the perfect distillation of where the two stand in the modern NBA landscape. While Young was long considered a defensive liability that would not survive in this league, that kind of drawback pales in comparison to a Defensive Player of the Year candidate simply afraid to shoot the ball or attack the basket such is his lack of confidence.
Ultimately, one player’s Achilles heel did not matter because he did not let it matter. One player’s did, seemingly because he let it, and it crippled his whole team.
In the fourth quarter, with the Hawks up five and the series on the line, Simmons attempted zero shots, as he had done in the final periods of Games 2, 4, 5 and 6. In fact, across the entire series, he had shot only three field goals in the fourth quarters – making all three.
He even passed up a wide open dunk to shift responsibility to Matisse Thybulle, the kind of play that will no doubt haunt the rest of Simmons’ career. Which now, increasingly, doesn’t look as though it will continue in the city of Philadelphia.
Thybulle was not expecting the pass and got fouled on his dunk attempt. Just like that, with the Sixers down two, a potential three-point play and lead swing became a single point at the line.
By contrast, Young did not stop shooting in the fourth. He went into it just 2-16 but still had the guts to keep firing, ending with 10 points in the final 12 minutes – the most by any player other than Joel Embiid, who had 11.
With two-and-a-half minutes left, a single possession lead and Simmons ahead of him, Young did not think twice about jacking up the 30-footer he inevitably swished. Therein lies the difference in mentality between the two, arguably the decisive factor in what was a semi-final series decided on the razor-thin margins at the periphery of the game.
During the final minute, Simmons was not even on the court as Doc Rivers scrambled for quick three-pointers to prolong the inevitable. Young stayed on until the bitter end, hit the final two free throws of the game, and gave his jersey to his father proudly watching from the stands.
For so long, this looked as though it would be a night to forget for Young. Instead, through sheer force of will, he made sure the memory was a good one. Arguably the finest of his career to date.
Simmons, to his credit, has taken responsibility and owned his performance. There are plenty of lessons to be learned and this will be far from his last playoff appearance. At 24, he has time on his side.
And in Young, he has an adversary from whom he could learn a thing or two about the magic of supreme confidence and relentless self-belief. Just take a look at where it gets you.