ATLANTA — For at least one night, the Atlanta Hawks appeared to have finally found the fearsome twosome they tried to form last offseason, when they traded for All-Star Dejounte Murray.
The late June swap with the San Antonio Spurs was intended to pair Murray with fellow guard Trae Young, Atlanta’s All-NBA long-range sharp shooter and alley-oop assist king. It was the kind of move that signaled the Hawks were in win-now mode.
But through the first two games of these playoffs, the pairing looked anything but; mostly stymied by Young’s inconsistent shooting from the field.
That all changed with Friday night’s 130-122 Game 3 win over the Boston Celtics, when Young’s shot finally rounded into form, particularly in the game’s most clutch moments. Coupled with Murray’s 25 points, Young’s game-high 32 were part of a postseason coming out party for Atlanta’s top tandem.
Asked if it was the best performance he and Young have had in a game this year, Murray said without hesitation: “Absolutely.”
Young was a little less effusive in his praise of their joint performance, but still believed it was a step in the direction the Hawks ultimately want to go with both young stars.
“You don’t want to live in the moment too much. I mean, we won a game in the playoffs, it’s big,” Young said. “But we’ve had some really good games together. I don’t consider this our best game together. It’s definitely one of them, but it came at the right time and we needed it.”
The win brought Atlanta closer in the first-round series, cutting into Boston’s 2-1 lead. The Hawks will try to even the series in Game 4 Sunday night in Atlanta.
As soon as he sat in his chair at the postgame podium, Hawks head coach Quin Snyder said he was most impressed by the leadership Murray and Young displayed in the second half, as Atlanta staved off a furious Celtics charge. During one timeout early in the third quarter, he couldn’t help but notice how the two stars were communicating with one another.
“First of all, [it was] kind of figuring out what they were thinking together playing off each other,” Snyder said. “At one point, I was like, I should just be quiet. Usually when that’s happening, as a coach, if you feel that and you respect those guys and they are communicating like that and if they’re on the same page, people will play off of them. That’s what happened us.
“That’s when we’re going to be playing our best basketball.”
It was late in the fourth quarter, with the trailing Celtics keeping the game within a 3-pointer of taking the lead, when Young and Murray showed up the most. One of them would hit a 3, and then a possession or two later, the other would loft a timely floater.
“It’s supposed to be the guards are supposed to be able to control the games, and we consider ourselves two pretty good guards,” Young said. “We’ve got to be able to control the games when we have leads.”
Across the game’s final 3:21, Young and Murray combined to score the Hawks’ final 14 points. It was part of a stretch that included the four free throws Young knocked down to ice the win in the final 36 seconds.
“Those two guys, over the course of the game, not just with the other guys on the team, but with one another, were connecting and pushing one another,” Snyder said. “You could tell [Young] found a rhythm [Friday night], and it was good to see that because he’s been working on it. He’s been watching [film] and trying to figure out how he can attack somebody.”
Young was 12-for-22 from the field and knocked down two 3s in six tries. Those numbers were a far departure from the combined 14-for-40 showing from the field and three made 3-pointers he had in Games 1 and 2 in Boston.
“I know I can play like this,” Young said. “Like I said last game, I wasn’t worried. I knew I could play the way I need to. It’s all about reading and making the right adjustments.”
When Murray was asked about how long it has taken for him and Young to fully gel as a duo, he highlighted the once-rocky journey Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had in their time together.
Playing together for the first time during the 2017-18 season, Tatum and Brown heard their share of questions about their connection until last postseason, when they led the Celtics into the NBA Finals. Any worries about how well they feed off one another have since ceased.
Look no further for evidence of that than Game 1 of this series, when Tatum had 25 points and Brown added a game-high 29 in Boston’s comfortable win.
“I don’t want to talk about Boston too much, but I look at Jayson and Jaylen a lot,” Murray said. “Two guys who were going through it a lot, just not working out. And just to get to where they’re at, the level they’re at — obviously last year going to the Finals and this year being at the top of the East — so great things don’t happen overnight.
“Great things take time and me and [Young] both want to learn the game and work at the game at the same time.”
Had Boston won Friday, Brown and Tatum would have accomplished something only a handful of teammate pairings have in NBA history.
Prior to Game 3, the duo hadn’t lost a first-round playoff game while playing on the court together. They had combined to win 15 straight. The last two teammates to win at least 16 consecutive games in one playoff round together were LeBron James and JR Smith, who did it in the conference semifinals when they played for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only duos with longer such winning streaks on the postseason floor together all involve the dominant Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s that regularly battled the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Three separate combinations of pairings of Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and James Worthy all won 20 straight first-round playoff games. A few other pairings that included Johnson, Cooper, Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 19- and 18-consecutive games in a single playoff round.