Bomani Jones perfectly framed the conventional wisdom about postseason basketball on his podcast last week: “Once you get to the playoffs, it becomes a lot less about what you can do, and a lot more about what you can’t do.” Supporting evidence abounds in nearly every series: in the Suns burning Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense to cinders, in the small-ball Clippers stretching Rudy Gobert and the Jazz past their breaking point, in Ben Simmons’s hack-accelerated disintegration against the Hawks.
“Against the Hawks,” though, is one place we haven’t seen the evidence very much. A month ago, as Atlanta prepared for the first postseason run of the Trae Young era, the conventional wisdom suggested that Young—one of the NBA’s loudest and most bombastic pick-and-roll playmakers, but a diminutive one listed at just 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds whom various statistical models and our lyin’ eyes have graded as a suspect defender—would find himself ruthlessly targeted on the defensive end. With nothing but time and energy to expend on game-planning for the Hawks, the thinking went, opposing coaches would devise ways to exploit Young’s lack of size and overall defensive skill, forcing Nate McMillan to contort, and eventually distort, Atlanta’s lineups in service of protecting the team’s offensive engine. (If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s the same approach opponents often took, or at least tried to take, against Stephen Curry during the Warriors’ championship runs.)
Two rounds and eight wins later, though, we’re finding that’s not the case. Young has been absolutely as advertised offensively, averaging a sparkling 29.1 points and 10.4 assists per game to lead the Hawks past the Knicks and 76ers on an improbable run to Atlanta’s first conference finals since 2015. How’s he racking up those monster numbers? Well, there’s the small matter of his mastery in manipulating defenses with the threat of his playmaking, as my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor recently broke down:
Another much more basic explanation? He’s averaging a team-high 38.3 minutes per game in these playoffs. Which is to say: He’s not exactly getting forced off the floor due to his defensive inadequacies. Far from it, in fact. In the 459 minutes that Young has played thus far in his postseason debut, the Hawks have allowed just 108.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats—a defensive rating that would’ve ranked fifth in the NBA during the regular season.
So: What gives? Why haven’t Young’s career-long struggles to defend his position come back to bite Atlanta on the stage where almost every weakness gets exploited?
Some of it owes to the personnel of the opposition. Neither the Knicks nor Sixers featured enough explosive offensive perimeter talent to force Young to guard a dangerous player at all times; both opponents’ rosters provided at least some safe harbor for Young, who primarily hid on Reggie Bullock (a 3-and-D swingman who doesn’t create much off the dribble) against New York, and shuffled from Danny Green (ditto) to Matisse Thybulle (ibid., your honor) to Furkan Korkmaz (a more capable scorer, but one who shot just 6-for-19 when defended by Young in Round 2) against Philadelphia.
The Knicks were never really able to pin Young down in advantageous isolation matchups, thanks in part to Atlanta doing a good job of executing a hedge-and-recover strategy and defensive centerpiece Clint Capela being able to essentially ignore New York’s centers to make sure that Young never walked alone. The Sixers offense, built primarily around Joel Embiid operating in the post, was similarly lax in going after Young early in the second round, and while Philly did find some success as the series wore on—Seth Curry, in particular (19 points on 7-for-7 shooting with two assists with Young guarding him)—it wasn’t enough to dampen Young’s impact on the offensive end throughout Atlanta’s seven-game victory.
Trae Young created, assisted, or scored 57.6 points per game in the Hawks 7-game series against the 76ers.— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) June 21, 2021
That’s why one of the biggest questions in the run-up to the Eastern Conference finals is whether the Bucks, who survived their own seven-game war of attrition to advance to the third round, can succeed where their predecessors failed and finally make Young pay on the defensive end.
Young appeared in only one of Atlanta’s three meetings with Milwaukee this season: an April 15 contest that the Bucks won, 120-109. That matchup, like so many others from this illness-and-injury-infected season, comes with a slew of caveats: Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo had just come back from short stints on the shelf, John Collins and Danilo Gallinari were in street clothes, Jeff Teague played 27 minutes, and so on. How much signal we can derive from the noise is up for debate.
It’s notable, though, that when McMillan tried to hide Young on the least immediately threatening perimeter player in the Bucks’ starting five—in this case Bryn Forbes, who slid in for an injured Donte DiVincenzo (who won’t appear in this series, either)—the Bucks put Forbes to work, as both a rabbit for Young to chase off the ball and a screen-setter in hopes of putting him in compromising mismatches:
Forbes has yet to start in Milwaukee’s postseason run; after DiVincenzo went down in the first round, Pat Connaughton stepped in to finish off the Heat, and P.J. Tucker joined Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez in the starting lineup against the Nets. It’ll be interesting to see how Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer decides to line up against his former team.
(About that: Bud trying to knock off the franchise he spent a half-decade coaching—and two years running basketball operations!—is one sort of fun, sort of weird burbling subplot in this conference finals. Another: the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco! You think Bucks fans got sick watching Bogdan average 18 a game on 49/46/91 shooting over the final two months of the regular season, and hitting huge clutch shots against New York and Philly? Imagine him—if he’s physically up to it after being limited late in Round 2 by a sore right knee—doing it against the team that thought it had traded for him before everything went shithouse.)
Connaughton or Forbes might be the best bets to make Young hustle off the ball and make a play on the short roll if Atlanta tries to trap or hedge and recover to keep Trae out of harm’s way. Sticking with Tucker, though, could help Milwaukee hold up against the Hawks’ frontcourt firepower, and if McMillan tries to stash Young on him in the corner, you’d imagine he’d eagerly pivot to attacking the offensive glass with reckless abandon and putting Young into actions by coming up and screening for Antetokounmpo, Middleton, or Holiday. (This could also be an opportunity to bring Bobby Portis back into the fold; Bud mothballed him after Game 4 against Brooklyn for fear of his defensive shortcomings, but his inside-out and always-willing offensive game could prove useful in eliminating hiding spots for Young.) Whichever option Budenholzer chooses, whether he’s able to massage the matchups to ensure that Trae has to guard somebody could be a major factor in the series.
Milwaukee kept looking for opportunities to go at Young during that April 15 matchup, taking advantage of his tendency to ball-watch away from the play:
And making him navigate screens in the pick-and-roll:
And, when they could get him in isolation, letting Holiday use his size and strength to just bulldoze the slighter Young on his way to the rim:
Holiday looms large in this series. He’s got the brawn and touch to bully and torch Young on the offensive end, and he’s a fantastic point-of-attack defender capable of slithering around screens, keeping Young in front of him, and consistently getting his hands in passing lanes and good contests on his shot attempts:
Trae Young tonight with Jrue Holiday as his primary defender:— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 16, 2021
- 1-9 FG (7 of 9 shots contested)
- 5 turnovers pic.twitter.com/ydcuoauoLr
The Bucks’ starting point guard was phenomenal against Miami, averaging nearly 15 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds per game in Milwaukee’s exorcism of a sweep. He had a rocky Round 2 against Brooklyn, struggling to find his touch—just 44 percent inside the restricted area, just 28.1 percent outside the paint—while battling defensively (and often unsuccessfully) against the much-taller Kevin Durant as part of a team-wide and series-long effort to make everything as difficult as possible on a transcendent offensive talent. How effectively he’s able to do it again, against a much different opponent, could go a long way toward determining who comes out of the East.
So, too, will this:
I wonder if we'll see this in the Hawks/Bucks series pic.twitter.com/nGfT2uw7Ci— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) June 21, 2021
We all know that the Bucks will play drop coverage, letting Holiday chase Young over screens and funnel him into Lopez, Milwaukee’s Groot-ass interior deterrent, to force him to either finish over length or drop the ball off to a rolling teammate—where Giannis, one of the league’s most menacing help-side shot blockers, lies in wait. New York and Philadelphia adopted similar strategies to start out against Young; he punished them by either going to his floater game (he’s 41-for-90, 45.6 percent, on non–restricted area paint shots in this postseason) or lofting lobs for Capela and Collins to finish, often violently, above the rim.
When he’s able to get both his interior scoring and playmaking games going, Young can completely unlock an opponent, sending even elite defenses scrambling and forcing them into the kinds of compromises that lead to wide-open looks all over the floor for Atlanta’s armada of shooters. When he can’t, though—as in that April meeting with the Bucks, when he went just 3-for-12 from floater range and connected with Capela on only one lob …
… then Atlanta’s offense can sputter and seize, opening the door to the sort of transition attacks on which Giannis and the Bucks feast. The first two rounds have introduced a national audience to all that Young and Co. can do. If Milwaukee wants to make its first Finals in 47 years, it will have to finally expose what he and the Hawks can’t.