2021 Playoffs: East Semifinal | 76ers (1) vs. Hawks (5)

Film Study: Pick-and-roll defense will be key in Sixers-Hawks Game 7

Atlanta has been aggressive at running pick-and-roll action to create space for Trae Young.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Hawks have set 357 ball screens for Trae Young in the series.

With the Milwaukee Bucks having outlasted the Brooklyn Nets in an exhaustingly epic Game 7 on Saturday, they await the winner of the other Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers and No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks have had three straight games go down to the wire, and they’ll decide the series with one more game in Philadelphia on Sunday.

One big thing to watch on both ends of the floor is pick-and-roll defense. Here’s a look at what both teams have done to prevent the opponents’ most potent ball-handler from doing damage in the pick-and-roll.

Mixing it up vs. Trae Young

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Hawks have set 357 ball screens for Trae Young in the series. That’s about 60 per game and about 72 per 100 possessions with Young on the floor. When Joel Embiid has been the screener’s defender, he’s mostly dropped back, allowing Young to get to his floater …

Trae Young floater

Young has shot 20-for-45 (44%) from 5-14 feet (and also drawn some fouls on trailing defenders), so the drop coverage isn’t a terrible option for the Sixers. But in Game 6, they had Embiid venture out to the level of the screen at times, both in the first half and late …

Capela roll, Harris foul

Tobias Harris has also mixed up his coverages (with some additional mobility) when John Collins has set screens for Young. On a big possession late in Game 6, he was able to get the ball out of Young’s hands, leading to a long 3-point attempt from Kevin Huerter …

Kevin Huerter long 3

The Hawks have been about as efficient when Young has passed after a ball-screen as they have when he’s taken a shot. But if Bogdan Bogdanovic (who left Game 6 early with right knee soreness) can’t play in Game 7 and the Hawks are down a secondary playmaker, the Sixers have more reason to play those pick-and-rolls more aggressively and (try to) get the ball out of Young’s hands. Late in Game 6, Young waived off or rejected several screens just to avoid the extra defender.

Bogdanovic is also a potential screener for Young. And, though there were only a few instances of this in Game 6, the Hawks have been more efficient when they’ve had a guard screen (or slip out of a non-screen) for Young. The Sixers haven’t wanted to switch those, and the screener has been able to get open with quick pop out to the wing …

Bogdan Bogdanovic pop and drive

More screens from the guards and wings could be a wrinkle for the Hawks on Sunday. If Bogdanovic isn’t available, Danilo Gallinari could be one of those wings. Gallinari almost exclusively played the four this season, but he Hawks have played him alongside Collins and Clint Capela for 38 minutes in this series (after playing them together for about five minutes in the regular season and not at all in the first round), with all but one possession of that coming in Games 3-6. And they’ve had some success, outscoring the Sixers by 23 points in those 38 minutes.

Icing Seth Curry

Only the Nets have set fewer ball-screens per 100 possessions than the Sixers in the playoffs. But one of Philly’s go-to sets late in games has been a Seth Curry “Iverson” cut into a pick-and-roll with Embiid (and sometimes a second screener). Midway through the series, the Hawks made an adjustment by “icing” those pick-and-rolls, having Curry’s defender get between the ball and the screener to keep Curry on the side of the floor.

The Sixers then seemed to make an adjustment by having Curry’s catch closer to the middle of the floor instead of along the sideline, making it harder to “ice” those screens …

Seth Curry pick-and-roll

Note that, on the possession above, Ben Simmons isn’t on the floor and occupying space on the baseline. That allowed Embiid to roll to the rim and force the weak-side defender (Collins) to sink into the paint. Curry wasn’t able to make the cross-court pass to Harris in the left corner, but the ball eventually got there, and Harris drove past Collins’ close-out.

Tobias Harris drive

With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers will have him hand off to Curry. And with Simmons’ defender playing soft, that puts the onus on Curry’s defender to get around the screen and prevent an in-rhythm 3. Late in the third quarter on Friday, Huerter couldn’t get there …

Seth Curry 3-pointer

On the next possession, Huerter was able to chase Curry off the initial look. And when Curry transitioned into a pick-and-roll with Embiid, Simmons’ presence in the paint had Embiid popping to the 3-point line, where the Hawks were happy to have him shoot …

Joel Embiid 3-point attempt

Curry has shot a remarkable 28-for-47 (60%) from 3-point range in the series. He’s 8-for-13 in the first six seconds of the shot clock, so finding him in transition is the Hawks’ first critical task defensively. Keeping him in check in the half-court is the next challenge.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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