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Bucks vs. Hawks: How Milwaukee adjusted, smothered Trae Young and slowed down Atlanta’s pick-and-roll game

Two days after Trae Young’s 48-point, 11-assist masterpiece to open the Eastern Conference finals, the Milwaukee Bucks clipped the star Hawks’ wings. Young never found his rhythm in Game 2 on Friday and was often visibly frustrated in the 125-91 loss. He finished with 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting, with three assists, nine turnovers and only one foul drawn. He was minus-29 in 28 minutes. 

Milwaukee had a lot to do with that. Unlike Game 1, coach Mike Budenholzer did not ask Jeff Teague to come off the bench and check Young. Jrue Holiday was superb at the point of attack, as was Brook Lopez around the rim. The Bucks slowed Young and the Hawks down, though, by turning their defense into a five-man operation.

Young’s first turnover came off of a pick-and-roll, with all five Milwaukee defenders looking at him. Lopez ventured away from the paint, Khris Middleton was in the gap. P.J. Tucker tagged the roller and Giannis Antetokounmpo even abandoned Kevin Huerter on the perimeter to help on the inside:

It’s no wonder that Young was surprised, given how the Bucks had defended him previously. He did much of his damage in Game 1 against conservative coverage, finding lobs and floaters without feeling much resistance. Budenholzer took criticism for the minutes he gave to Teague and backup big man Bobby Portis, but they might not have looked as bad if they weren’t trying to execute a scheme that turns the pick-and-roll into a game of 2-on-2. 

Young’s shimmy in the opener made a victim out of Holiday, who was left in the dust when Young rejected a screen with a nasty crossover. Young would not have had the time to do it, however, if Portis or Middleton were positioned higher on the court. 

Milwaukee did not exclusively drop its bigs on Wednesday. It tried just about everything, including a long stretch of switching with Lopez and Portis on the bench. That it started the game in the deep drop, though, and that it did not station defenders in the gaps to shut down driving lanes, tells us that it went into the series with a straightforward game plan: Let Young get his points off floaters and pull-ups, but shut down everybody else. 

After the loss, the Bucks decided to take the complete opposite approach. They wanted to be much more active and aggressive. The game was too easy for Young the first time around, and they were determined not to let him get comfortable. 

“I think that really makes a big difference,” Antetokounmpo said. “Being in driving lanes, showing help and making other guys make the plays so he can pass the ball.”

“It’s night and day,” Lopez said. 

Shortly after that first turnover, Young ran an empty-side pick-and-roll with Clint Capela, and it produced a wild, heavily contested shot for John Collins outside of the restricted area:

When Young turns the corner on that play, Holiday stays connected. Tucker, already in help position, slides over with his hands up, swiping at the ball. Lopez retreats, waving his hands like a madman. Antetokounmpo is in the paint, and Pat Connaughton is just outside of it.

“He just sees more bodies, sees more hands,” Lopez said. “And he’s not getting downhill like he did in Game 1 where he’s really in his comfort zone, he can get to his floater, which is so similar to his lob, and see the guys on the perimeter as well.”

The Hawks turned the ball over on an alarming 23.3 percent of their possessions when Young was on the court, but Middleton and Budenholzer both said that forcing turnovers wasn’t a point of emphasis. Milwaukee did emphasize being more aggressive, applying more pressure and “making ’em make bad decisions with the ball,” Middleton said, and the turnovers were a byproduct of that. 

Part of the Bucks’ success was simply making Young think. In the opener, he played with the freedom that comes with knowing that a good screen will give you plenty of room to operate. Even when Milwaukee played small-ball and changed up its coverages, his reads were second nature. Young is one of the best passers in the game, and he’s seen every scheme there is. He knows how to manipulate a defense, and if you give him time to pick you apart, he will happily do so. 

In the second quarter of Game 2, Young used a screen from Collins to get Holiday off of him, then used a ball screen from Capela to get downhill. Antetokounmpo kept his hands high, Holiday took away Capela’s roll, Tucker was in help position and Lopez rejected Young at the rim: 

If Milwaukee had tried to defend that with two players, Lopez would have had to be lower, so Young could not throw a lob to Capela. This would have given Young ample space to get a shot off. Instead, Young has to play a cat-and-mouse game with the defense, hesitating before attacking the basket. The hesitation gets Tucker out of the way, but it gives Lopez time to get in position and block the shot without fouling him. 

“We told [Lopez] we want him to be aggressive,” Middleton said. “So with him being aggressive, we have to have his back, we have to try to make life as easy as it can for him. Because his job is hard. He’s got to cover so many mistakes, he’s got to be able to guard the pick-and-roll, then if somebody drives he’s got to have our back. So at the same time, we got to have his. And knowing that, we maybe show a crowd a little bit more, stunt at the ball a little bit more also, it makes his job a lot easier to retreat and get back to the rim, to his normal spot.”

Lopez said that the adjustment freed him up to “mess with whoever’s coming down trying to make the play.” Most of the time, that was Young, but in Game 3 the Hawks need to get their star some help. As much as Young struggled, he is not solely responsible for the team scoring 82.9 points per 100 possessions through three quarters. Atlanta’s spacing was less than stellar, its 3-point shooting has been rough for a while now and its secondary playmakers — Huerter, Lou Williams and the banged-up Bogdan Bogdanovic — fared no better in the pick-and-roll. 

When the Bucks dared Young to beat them by himself, he forcefully made them rethink the wisdom of that strategy. Now that they’re daring the other Hawks to beat them, the other Hawks must do the same.




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