Pick your poison: How should the Bucks defend Trae Young?
Scheming to defend a player as offensively gifted as Trae Young means choosing between a series of unpalatable options and deciding which one you can stomach. The New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers wrestled with that choice in the first two rounds of the playoffs and came out on the losing end. The Milwaukee Bucks faced the same quandary in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and they too fell victim to Young's string-pulling mastery.
The Bucks, unsurprisingly, opted to stick with their base coverage, a deep drop, for the vast majority of the game. The Hawks spammed various iterations of high pick-and-rolls, alternating between Clint Capela and John Collins as screeners, and made hay in the middle of the floor as Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and at times Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped back.
Young shot 7-for-12 on floaters and was eventually able to use the threat of that floater to open up lobs and wraparound passes to Capela and Collins on the roll. In his best playoff performance yet, the third-year point guard finished with 48 points and 11 assists to lead Atlanta to a 116-113 series-opening win on the road.
The Hawks had a 114.9 offensive rating for the game, considerably higher than their 108.6 mark from the first two rounds but not catastrophic for Milwaukee in today's scoring environment. A good offensive night from the Bucks (which feels like a lot to ask these days) would've made it survivable.
But things also would've looked a lot worse for the Bucks' defense if Atlanta had shot a normal percentage from beyond the arc rather than going 8-for-32, including 4-for-15 on wide-open threes. The Hawks managed to put forth a strong offensive display in spite of those struggles because they shredded the Bucks to the tune of 62% inside the arc.
Generally speaking, the Hawks took the shots that the Bucks' defense is designed to concede, attempting 43 non-rim 2-pointers and just two corner threes. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Atlanta knocked down 23 of those in-between shots, tilting the math in their favor. Also of note: The Hawks shot 80% at the rim. It's pretty tough to win while primarily playing a drop against one of the league's best drop-busters if you aren't even effectively protecting the basket. You can't take away everything, but you have to be able to take away something. For the most part, Young got where he wanted and did what he wanted. The Bucks let him get his points and use his roll men to great effect.
The Bucks particularly struggled to navigate the Hawks' double ball screens. Jrue Holiday was the primary on Young, and while he wasn't especially good at the point of attack in this one, he's still by far Milwaukee's best option in that matchup. The problem is he can't really be asked to track Young on-ball through multiple screens. So the Bucks mostly switched the first screen, which was typically defended by Antetokounmpo, P.J. Tucker, or Pat Connaughton, none of whom navigate screens as well as Holiday. Capela would then hit one of them with the second screen, against which Lopez would drop.
That got Young going downhill with even less pressure coming from behind:
It might behoove Milwaukee to try and stay out of that initial switch from time to time, though that's obviously easier said than done. Hard-hedging the first screen could prevent Young from using the second one, but it would also give him a seam to split the two screens and explode down the middle.
The Bucks countered in the fourth quarter by downsizing with Antetokounmpo at center. That allowed them to switch everything, including both screens in Atlanta's double-drag actions, and prevent Young from getting into the middle of the floor, where he'd been carving them up all night. The switches kept the ball in front and flattened the Hawks out, leading to several possessions that stalled out like this:
But, while the process in that lineup and scheme looked far better on one-shot possessions, the Bucks ultimately collapsed due to their inability to finish those possessions with defensive rebounds.
Statistically, it was a slight improvement. With Lopez and Young both on the floor, the Bucks allowed the Hawks to score a ridiculous 128.6 points per 100 possessions, so the bar was low. But with Young on and the Bucks playing Antetokounmpo at center, the Hawks still scored a robust 122.2 per 100 thanks to a 50% offensive rebound rate. Collins hit a massive three with under two minutes to play to cap a possession in which Atlanta reset the shot clock three times. So, yes, the Bucks' smaller lineups did force the Hawks into more misses. But forcing misses isn't worth much if the opponent is recovering literally half of them.
That switch-heavy configuration is still going to be a vital fallback option throughout the series, but the Bucks aren't built to play that way for whole games or even long stretches, especially with Donte DiVincenzo out and their options for filling out those small lineups so limited. They're fully capable of doing it in spots, but it isn't what they're used to or what they're best at. And the Hawks will find pockets in that coverage to exploit with even the slightest slip-up:
The Bucks could consider more traps to get the ball out of Young's hands and force other Hawks to beat them. In theory, it makes sense to blitz high pick-and-rolls when Capela is screening because the Bucks should feel comfortable with Capela trying to make plays in space. In practice, Lopez probably doesn't have the mobility to trap Young and prevent him from either splitting it or turning the corner. You might be able to live with Capela playing four-on-three, but giving Trae a chance to do so, without Lopez back there to protect the rim, is inviting certain death.
Blitzing 1-4 pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo might be a better option, but that's usually going to mean John Collins popping or slipping free, which is another dicey proposition. Maybe there's a way to split the difference. Below is a rare show-and-recover from Portis, which proved just good enough. He got Young to give the ball up and still managed to offer a half-decent contest on Collins' above-the-break three:
That's a look the Bucks can probably live with. Hedging more often with Portis also makes sense because, unlike Lopez, Portis isn't actually effective in a drop, so the Bucks are basically getting the worst of both worlds when they put him in that coverage.
Some astute observers have suggested the Bucks try showing more aggressive help from the strong-side wing, which would give them a chance to impact the ball without forcing the screen defender to fully engage. Consider these possessions, and how they might look if Connaughton and Khris Middleton (respectively) were pulled over to the nail to impede Young's path:
The downside, of course, would be potentially giving a knockdown shooter like Danilo Gallinari or Kevin Huerter a clean catch-and-shoot 3-point look or a wide-open lane to flash middle and play three-on-two.
All of this is a long way of saying that there are no perfect options (or even good ones) against Trae Young and this Hawks team, and any option the Bucks choose is bound to make them wonder at points if they ought to have chosen something else. They'll continue to mix things up, as they should, but their best bet is probably to stick with the base coverage that got them here, not overreact to the scads of floaters Young is bound to make against that coverage, and focus on trying to suppress what he can do as a playmaker.
That's not to say they can't improve in executing their base, especially at the point of attack. Holiday must be better at staying attached while going over screens and needs to work harder to get back in front. There were far too many possessions in which he seemed to give up on that pursuit once Young put him in the rearview.
Lopez could stand to nudge up closer to the screen in order to contest or deter more of Young's floaters. However, navigating that one-on-two scenario is tricky business, and he'll rightly be more focused on limiting Capela on the roll and taking away the lob than on challenging every one of Young's in-between shots.
The Bucks might consider ducking under more screens and daring Young to beat them with pull-up threes. Young shot just 4-of-13 from deep in Game 1 and has an effective field-goal percentage of just 47.3% on all off-the-dribble jumpers in the playoffs.
They also just need to do a better job of boxing out. A good chunk of the offensive rebounds the Bucks gave up when they went small wasn't even the result of getting physically overwhelmed but was just a matter of being out of position or failing to put a body on someone.
And finally, no more Jeff Teague. The playoffs have advanced past the need for Jeff Teague.
There's only so much you can do against Young, but if they can clean up some stuff and make more jumpers of their own at the other end, the Bucks should be able to survive him, just as they did Kevin Durant last round.