Seventeen days ago, an NBA title contender enlisted a guard with an NBA All-Defensive honor to his name to take on the challenge of defending Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young in a Game 1 of a playoff series. On Wednesday night in the opening tilt of the Eastern Conference finals, another NBA title contender handed the assignment of Young to an All-NBA defender.
Just as he carved up Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons in the conference semis, Young dominated Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks defense in Game 1 on the road. Young asserted complete control over the game, chalking up 48 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in the Hawks’ 116-113 win over the Bucks.
Devising a game plan to defend Young on the high pick-and-roll is the first item on any opponent’s to-do list. At the outset on Wednesday, the Bucks rolled out their most common strategy — dropping their big men into the paint as Young’s defender fights over the screen. Young, who is a virtuoso of both the floater and the lob pass to the rim, exploited the space in front of Milwaukee’s backpedaling defenders.
“It is hard,” Holiday said. “Especially when he’s making his floaters, it seems like everything is going to hell.”
Bucks forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton each characterized Young as being in his “comfort zone” in Game 1. Swinging around the Hawks’ bread-and-butter double screen at the top of the floor, Young attacked downhill, found Clint Capela and John Collins on numerous occasions, and nailed four 3-pointers.
“We gotta do a better job deep on him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He is going to score getting downhill for the lobs and that’s his confidence. I think we just got to make it as tough as possible for him, make him play a lot of one on one. But at the end of the day, he had 48 points, he’s a great player, like he is going to score with a punch.”
It’s inconceivable Young could drop 48 points in a conference finals, on a visitor’s floor, and not engage in some theatrics.
On an embarrassing possession for Milwaukee toward the end of the third quarter, Young came off a screen. As Bobby Portis dropped into the paint and Holiday was sent off-course by a crossover dribble, Young had more than three seconds to set himself behind the arc with no Buck within several feet. If this were James Harden, he’d be licking his lips. But Young is his own man, and while he waited for a Milwaukee defender that would never arrive, he shimmied his shoulders before launching and draining the 3-pointer.
“Ever since I was in middle school — when I was going on the road in middle school — I always loved playing on the road,” Young said. “I loved playing against the opposing crowd, an opposing team. It feels like you’re really just with your team, and it’s just them in the building. I think that really brings our group together.”
When Young made his next trip upcourt, he was picked up by Antetokounmpo off a switch, as the Bucks went small for the final 14 minutes of the game. During those 14 minutes, Young made only one of nine shot attempts from the field, turned the ball over twice and recorded three assists.
Though the Bucks have been largely faithful to their drop coverage each of the previous two postseasons — Milwaukee ranked No. 15 among the 16 playoff teams last postseason in switches per possession — they spent much of this regular season in the laboratory cultivating different schemes. They incorporated more switching and even zoned up on occasion to deploy more flexibility for the playoffs.
On Wednesday night, the disparity between Atlanta’s production off the pick-and-roll against Milwaukee’s switches and their more traditional scheme was stark. According to Second Spectrum, the Hawks generated 1.07 points per chance when the Bucks didn’t switch — but only 0.64 points per chance when they did.
Going small doesn’t come without risk for the Bucks. Atlanta secured four offensive rebounds in the final 3:01 of the game that translated to seven points, including the go-ahead putback by Capela with 29.8 seconds remaining that would prove decisive.
“I think the most frustrating part of this game is the offensive rebounds,” Antetokounmpo said. “We had two or three offensive rebounds back to back and they got a 3 out of it. They got the game-winning bucket out of it by Clint Capela.”
Though Holiday served as Young’s primary defender in Game 1, Young scored buckets against six different Bucks. One Holiday teammate that spent time on Young was guard Jeff Teague, who had played only 31 minutes over Milwaukee’s 11 postseason games in the first two rounds. Coach Mike Budenholzer took Teague for a test drive, but handing him the responsibility of guarding Young certainly stressed the Bucks’ guardrails. In the short time he was defended by Teague, Young went 3-for-3 from the field for eight points.
Budenholzer emphasized that the most judicious approach to Young would require presenting him with different looks. Holiday performed yeoman’s work, but as Young has demonstrated, even elite guards struggle to contain him — unless they have length. Milwaukee has a fair amount of it — including one particularly long, versatile defender in Antetokounmpo — but Young will continue to see a merry-go-round of defenders.
The Bucks value Lopez greatly — his rim protection, rebounding and his range on the offensive end. But if there’s a positive to derive from Milwaukee’s loss on Wednesday, it’s the success they enjoyed against Young when they unleashed their switching defense with a smaller lineup.
Whatever the Bucks opt to throw at Young, the task of slowing him is a load.
“I’ve seen pretty much every defense,” Young said, when asked if he was surprised by the space he found against Milwaukee’s defense. “It’s really just figuring out what type of defense they’re showing that night. So I’m not surprised. For me, it’s just trying to make the right read and figure out how they’re going to guard. They guard a certain way, and just trying to make plays and attack that way.
“I’m not really surprised, ever.”