2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)

Film Study: Trae Young, Hawks beat multiple Bucks schemes

Trae Young's prowess on the pick-and-roll put the Bucks in a bind in Game 1. What adjustments could be coming?

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Trae Young’s incandescent play in the pick-and-roll has earned the Hawks three straight series openers on the road.

There is no correct way to defend Trae Young in the pick-and-roll. That’s kind of why the Atlanta Hawks have set almost 4,000 ball screens for him this season.

Young and the Hawks have potential answers for every kind of coverage that the Milwaukee Bucks might throw at them in the Eastern Conference finals. There were multiple coverages in Game 1 on Wednesday, and the Hawks solved them enough to register a 116-113 victory, their third Game 1 victory — all on the road! — in as many tries.

Prior to Wednesday, the Bucks had the No. 1 defense in the playoffs and hadn’t allowed more than a point per possession in any of their five home games. In the conference semis, they held Brooklyn (shorthanded, but also with Kevin Durant) to just 91.5 points per 100 possessions over three games at Fiserv Forum.

The Hawks only ranked 11th offensively through the conference semis. But they eliminated the defenses that ranked fourth and second in the regular season. And in winning Game 1, the Hawks scored 116 points on 101 possessions (114.9 per 100). Much of that success came via Young in the pick-and-roll.

Young didn’t just account for 72 of the 116 points via his own points or assists. The Hawks scored 108 points on 88 offensive possessions (122.7 per 100) with him on the floor and a paltry eight points on 14 possessions (57.1 per 100) with him off the floor.

1. Lots of drops

In the first half, the Bucks mostly used a “drop” coverage. Young’s defender (mostly Jrue Holiday) trailed him over the screen to prevent a pull-up 3 and the screener’s defender (mostly Brook Lopez) dropped back to protect the rim.

It’s a coverage based in math. Counting the regular season and playoffs, Young has shot 139-for-411 (33.8%, 1.01 points per shot) on pull-up 3s, 140-for-251 (55.8%, 1.12 points per shot) in the restricted area (layups), and 301-for-651 (46.2%, 0.92 points per shot) between the restricted area and the 3-point line. His floater is dangerous, but that’s the one you give up if given the choice.

But the Bucks were also wary of Young’s lobs to his roll men. He entered the conference finals with more than twice as many assists on dunks (36) as any other player (Holiday was second with 16) and he had 70 total assists to Clint Capela and John Collins, who had combined to shoot 87-for-127 (68.5%, 1.37 points per shot) in the restricted area through the first two rounds.

Note how, as Young gets into the paint, Lopez takes an extra step backward to keep Capela from getting behind him:

Trae Young tip in

In the first half on Wednesday, Young shot 7-for-8 between the restricted area and the 3-point line.

2. Going under

After not playing in the last five games of the conference semis, Jeff Teague was back in the Bucks’ rotation on Wednesday. And on two straight possessions midway through the second quarter, he went under screens for Young. Both times, Young drained a pull-up 3:

Trae Young 3-pointer

The Hawks ran double-drag screens for Young quite a bit. Early in the third quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo switched the first screen, but then went under the second one:

Trae Young 3-pointer

3. A couple of blitzes

There were two occasions where the Bucks brought two defenders to the ball. In the second quarter, Holiday and Khris Middleton trapped Young along the sideline late in the shot clock. So he whipped a behind-the-back pass to Kevin Huerter for a catch-and-shoot 3:

Kevin Huerter 3-pointer

PJ Tucker was in the vicinity of Huerter, but there was another open shooter one pass away. Young has always shown a willingness to get off the ball if that’s what’s called for, and the Hawks have the secondary playmakers to make defenses pay for paying extra attention to their star.

Early in the third quarter, Bobby Portis blitzed a Collins screen for Young, resulting in a missed pick-and-pop 3 from Collins…

John Collins pick-and-pop 3

Collins has shot 5-for-23 on above-the-break 3s in the playoffs, so that’s not a bad outcome for the Bucks, but he could also have rolled into the paint and had a 4-on-3 situation before Portis recovered.

4. Late switching

In the fourth quarter, the Bucks played small (Lopez and Portis combined to play 12 seconds) and switched all screens, flattening the Hawks’ offense quite a bit. On Young’s third offensive possession of the fourth, Milwaukee switched three successive ball screens for him, and the Hawks weren’t able to gain any kind of advantage:

Bucks switching

On that play, the Bucks forced a tough fadeaway from Danilo Gallinari. There were three more fourth-quarter possessions where the switching kept the Hawks flat and elicited long 3s (one, two, three) from Young that were off the mark, though Antetokounmpo was whistled for a foul on the second one.

Even with the 2-for-3 trip to the line after the hand-to-the-face foul, the Bucks’ switching adjustment had the Hawks scoring just six points on their first eight fourth-quarter possessions with Young on the floor. But Atlanta was able to eventually take advantage of the switching.

The first time they did was in that 6-points-on-8-possessions stretch, and it may have come with a mistake from Tucker. On a double-drag, he switched the first screen, but trailed over the second one, which Antetokounmpo switched. Capela was then able to get a clean roll to the rim, with no tag from the weak side:

Clint Capela roll

After the Bucks took a seven-point lead with a five-point possession, Antetokounmpo switched a Capela screen for Huerter. Tucker then “scrammed” Pat Connaughton and took Capela:

P.J. Tucker scram switch

Connaughton was still tasked with keeping Collins off the glass, which he couldn’t do:

John Collins tip-in

Two possessions later, Tucker switched onto Young and forced a tough, step-back 3. But Collins boxed out Holiday and earned the Hawks a second opportunity. The next time down the floor, the Hawks targeted Middleton, who fouled Young when he beat him off the dribble.

And finally, the Hawks took the lead when Antetokounmpo switched a screen and Capela beat Holiday to the glass:

Clint Capela put-back

Up next: Game 2

The Hawks seemingly have an answer for every kind of coverage. Against a drop, Young can get into the paint. Against a not-as-soft drop, the lob will be more available. Against a blitz, they can play 4-on-3. And against a switch, they can seek mismatches, both on the ball and on the glass. (The quickness with which Collins rolls to the rim can also be a weapon against a switch.)

So there is no obvious answer for the Bucks in Game 2 on Friday (8:30 ET, TNT). Even if switching is the best solution, they can’t play small for 48 minutes and they’ll need to do something else with Lopez on the floor.

And defense isn’t just about the scheme. It’s also about the energy and execution within that scheme. More ball pressure, higher hands, better communication, and quicker rotations can make a big difference. There were also a few examples (one, two, three) of bad transition defense from the Bucks on Wednesday. Take those away, play with a little more effort, and they probably win Game 1.

The Bucks certainly have what it takes to defend better going forward. But Young and the Hawks didn’t make it this far by accident, and they should be ready for whatever Milwaukee throws at them on Friday.

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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