2021 Playoffs: East First Round | Knicks vs. Hawks

Knicks try to take advantage of Trae Young, who flips script in Hawks' victory

The Knicks' offense targeted Trae Young in several situations, but he challenged their schemes throughout the Hawks' victory.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Game 4 Recap: Hawks 113, Knicks 96

Trae Young is not a “two-way” star. He is, absolutely, one of the best offensive players in the world. And at the same time, he can be a defensive liability. In each of his three seasons in the league, the Atlanta Hawks have been much better offensively and much worse defensively with Young on the floor than they’ve been with him off the floor.

In their first round series with the Hawks, the New York Knicks have seen the good Trae Young, the one that picks apart defenses (even those that ranked in the top five in the regular season) in the pick-and-roll. Through four games, Young has averaged 27.5 points and 10.0 assists, with just 2.8 turnovers. But the Knicks haven’t been able to find the bad Trae Young, the one that can be picked on defensively.

In Game 4 on Sunday, the Knicks tried a little harder to exploit Young on their end of the floor. But they failed once again, and with Atlanta having its best offensive game of the series, the Hawks cruised to a 113-96 victory and took a 3-1 series lead.

Some success

The man that Young was guarding set 14 ball-screens on Sunday. That was as many as had been set by Young’s man through the first three games total (two in Game 1, six each in Games 2 and 3).

The first one produced a great result. Reggie Bullock set a transition “pistol” screen on the right sideline for RJ Barrett, who spun away from Young, collapsed the defense, and kicked out to Derrick Rose for a corner 3 (and got away with a push after the pass):

Derrick Rose corner 3

Late in the second quarter, the Knicks were able to get Young switched onto Rose, who took him into the paint and scored:

Derrick Rose drive vs. Young

Not enough

Two possessions after that Rose corner 3, Young was called for a foul as Bullock went to set a screen for Rose. And after that foul, the Knicks got Young switched onto Julius Randle. But with Clint Capela leaving Taj Gibson under the basket to step up and prevent a Randle drive, the league’s Most Improved Player settled for a pull-up 19-footer.

Julius Randle pull-up jumper

Randle ranked second in the league with 463 pull-up 2-point attempts in the regular season. But his 41.9% on those shots ranked 30th among 35 players who attempted at least 200. A yield of 0.84 points per attempt is not good.

Bullock set more screens for Rose on the side of the floor (like the one that drew the switch above). But Young was able to blitz the screen, hold up Rose long enough for De’Andre Hunter to recover, and then hustle back before Bullock could launch a pick-and-pop 3 from the corner:

Trae Young pick-and-roll coverage

On the first possession of the third quarter, the Knicks had Bullock hand off to Randle. But Randle didn’t go at Young, who again held up the ball long enough for Hunter to recover. And since Rose had not spaced well enough, Bogdanovic was able to guard him and keep Bullock from getting open on the flare:

Bullock hand-off

More spacing needed?

There are ways to make the Hawks pay for the strategy of having Young step out on those screens, hold up the ball for the initial defender to recover, and then scramble back to his man. But with the series returning to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday (7:30 ET, TNT), the Knicks have to make quicker decisions. It would help if the screener could roll into space and make plays in a 4-on-3 situation. Bullock doesn’t seem to be that guy, but maybe Alec Burks could handle the job?

Another issue is that Capela has been able to largely ignore Gibson and Nerlens Noel. So, if Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau wants to get crazy (his team is down 3-1), he could try playing Randle at the 5, something he’s done for just a minute and 13 seconds (at the end of the second quarter of Game 2) in this series.

The Hawks were also playing small (Danilo Gallinari at the 5) at that time, so the Knicks’ lineup was likely a reactionary thing, and we didn’t get to see how Atlanta would match up with their standard lineup construction. Back in January, the Knicks were a plus-11 in 10 minutes with Randle at the 5 in a game against the Hawks, but that was when they had Kevin Knox (their only versatile forward who can really unlock small-ball lineups) in the rotation.

The only team that’s had a worse offense than the Knicks in these playoffs is the one that’s already been eliminated. Desperate times do call for desperate measures and an elimination game is as desperate as times come in this league.

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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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