If Atlanta’s miracle postseason run was lacking a signature moment, Trae Young delivered one Wednesday with his “shimmy heard ‘round the world” against Milwaukee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Young, whose 48 points were the third-most in Hawks playoff history and the most since Dominique Wilkins hung 50 on Detroit in 1986, has embraced the hate, leaning into his villain persona by relentlessly trolling each and every opponent he’s faced. From mocking refs to bowing for the crowd at MSG after sending the Knicks packing in Round 1, the 22-year-old is a master provocateur, though Tim Legler doesn’t think Young’s showmanship would have gone over too well had he played in his era.
“There’s no question. He’s gonna’ be laid out. There’s just no way around it,” said Legler Thursday during his appearance on Greeny. “Back then, these guys didn’t really know each other at all and they grew to genuinely dislike each other in a lot of cases. It’s different now. Because of the ability to see guys face to face when you’re at the high-school level, the AAU level, the tournaments you’re in, developing friendships through social media. I do think that takes a little bit of the edge off the competitiveness.”
With hand-checking a distant memory and harsher consequences for hard fouls, today’s finesse, perimeter-oriented game is barely recognizable to the rough-and-tumble stylings of the 80s and 90s, when physical play—an aesthetic championed by the “Bad Boy” Pistons—reigned supreme. “I’ll be as dramatic as to say it’s not even the same sport,” said Legler. “The fear of a Flagrant 2 or an ejection, a suspension, a fine, all of those things were so minimal back then. There was no replay. My nose is crooked to this day because I played in the 90s in the NBA. And all I got for that was two free throws and a cotton ball in my nose.”
“If they had Flagrant 2s in the 90s, I’m telling you right now, neither Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman would ever have seen the second quarter of a game,” agreed Mike Greenberg, who covered the Bulls as a local reporter in the 90s. “They would not have made it to their first substitution.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo clearly wasn’t a big fan of Young’s theatrics Wednesday night, but unlike in Legler’s era when show-boaters got their comeuppance in the form of an errant elbow from Charles Oakley or a Karl Malone clothesline, the only way Giannis can wipe the smirk off Young’s face is by outplaying him.