Nate Duncan, a premier voice in the national NBA zeitgeist, describes Trae Young as an offensive technician. He’s a maestro conducting the offense, manipulating the defense to his will. Well, if Trae is the technician coming to your house to fix the internet, the Celtics defense is your 70-year-old mom asking “what’s a modem again?” for the 23rd time. Both are disrupting the process significantly.
Unlike the mother in the example above, the Celtics’ disruption is one of intention, a clinical deployment of their strategy. They’ve identified what makes Trae Young click, and the Hawks’ offense as a whole, and deployed the defense to take that away.
Simply put, Trae Young wants to run high pick and roll over, and over, and over again. It’s the foundation of his game, and he’s such a high usage player, it’s a foundation of the Hawks as well. Trae was second in the league in pick and roll ball handler possessions at 12.7, 0.1 behind Ja Morant in first and 1.4 possessions ahead of 3rd place Cade Cunningham. Not so coincidentally the Hawks had the highest frequency of pick and roll ball handler possessions in the regular season and rank 4th in the playoffs.
Trae attacks out of pick and roll in two primary ways. The first is his reliance on step-back threes, pretty standard stuff in the modern NBA, but Trae’s regularly launching several feet behind the line. He likes that shot, but it’s not particularly effective, he shot only 33.5% from 3 this season — just good enough to keep defenses honest.
Where Trae is truly dangerous, however, is getting into the lane. He’s a bit of a contradiction, a diminutive guard clocking in at 6’1” on his tall days, that makes his living in the lane. He does it in non-traditional ways though. He’s a master of the floater game; he was 8th in the league in FGM in the paint non-restricted area, flanked by Pascal Siakam and DeAndre Ayton above and below him respectively.
What really makes the floater a weapon for him is the element of disguise. His ability to line up a floater and either take it, or hit the roll man for a lob, is where defenses crumble. It’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s planning to do when he starts to line it up. He’s already weaponized this against the Celtics this series.
Trae is good enough that sometimes he gets into the lane and there's not much you can do. Expect Atlanta to set the screen higher up the court the next few games. pic.twitter.com/5OhnzCP16l— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 19, 2023
In order to stop Trae, a defense needs to make decisions. First, they must decide how they want to defend his pick and rolls. The Celtics have opted for two strategies, both have been effective. Second, they need to concede something. You can’t take everything away from a guy like Trae, but you can force him to reject his preferences, and the Cs are doing just that.
10,000 Leagues Under the Screen
The primary way the Celtics are defending Trae pick and rolls is drop coverage. In essence, they ask their guard to either fight over the screen or slip under, while the big slowly drops. It allows the big to corral the ball handler while maintaining position to stop a lob. Al Horford is an absolute master at drop coverage. Look at where he is the entire time Trae is running this.
Celtics are effectively conceding the deep step-back, but making sure Trae can't get to the floater or lob. pic.twitter.com/8TIYskidBf— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 19, 2023
The downside is that Trae can get to his step back anytime he wants. The upside is that the Celtics’ point of attack defenders are good enough to get in at least a light contest. Trae simply isn’t effective enough at those shots to make the Cs pay.
When the big is dropped that deep, his positioning allows him to contest a floater, but stay in range to affect a lob either by making the pass difficult or taking it away entirely. Trae has to throw it so high in the air that it allows help to get over and disrupt it. This isn’t a pick and roll situation, but Atlanta’s lack of shooting at the 5 puts Robert Williams in a similar spot to drop defense, and he forces a very difficult lob.
Celtics are doing a great job making sure Trae's lobs are difficult. Smart gets caught and is a step behind Young, but it's great help from Rob and an incredible recovery by Smart. pic.twitter.com/1uY24UdKi1— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 19, 2023
You can see how locked in the Celtics are on the floater/lob combo on this play.
Hunter makes the shot here, but the Celtics have decided that they will live with Trae taking long twos. He's averse to that shot, and has passed them up all series. pic.twitter.com/7wbVy9fhLJ— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 19, 2023
Horford barely comes out of the paint and concedes not only the step back, but a makeable longer pull-up midrange shot. Trae doesn’t bother with either. He’s looking to get closer to the rim, bait the foul, or hit Clint Capela on the lob. Horford is everywhere in drop here. Stopping Trae from getting into a floater or a short mid-range jumper and jumping immediately back to cut off the lob. Marcus Smart crashes in to help on the lob. That’s three Celtics defenders keyed in on stopping the floater/lob combo.
The problem? It allows DeAndre Hunter a fairly open three that he makes. The Celtics have bet all series that Trae won’t beat them with pull-ups and the Hawks’ wings won’t beat them with catch and shoots. So far, they’ve been right.
Sam Hauser Archipelago
If the Celtics aren’t dropping the big against Trae’s pick and rolls, then they are almost certainly switching. The Cs have resisted the temptation to trap or double and have preferred to let some of their weaker defenders try their luck in isolation after they switch the pick and roll. Trae’s inability to capitalize in these situations may lead to a quick series.
Often, when a below average defensive player is isolated on a top offensive player, we call it “being left on an island.” Anytime Sam Hauser has step foot on the court, the Hawks have tried to put him on an island. However, I hesitate to call it an island because Sam isn’t the only landmass in the way of the Hawks offense. It’s more an archipelago, sort of like Hawaii — one primary island with a bunch of smaller islands blocking Trae’s path to the rim. The Celtics show him bodies and force him to one side. For example:
Trae is clearly hunting Hauser, but Cs are making it hard to find the mismatch, and when he does, there's lots of help. But, they are resisting the traps and doubles that Trae can eat up with passing. pic.twitter.com/WR60arJzeq— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 19, 2023
Malcolm Brogdon shows, but never commits to a true double or trap, instead forcing Trae to drive to his weaker left hand when he settles in the middle of the court. Smart and Rob are effectively ignoring their covers to help Hauser if necessary, and Jaylen is in great help position just by virtue of being on the strongside. Look at how they’re lined up when Young starts to get into his move.
This is how you protect your weaker defenders when they are isolated after a switch. Make it easy for him, just don’t get beat left and this possession should be solid. Instead of making a pretty simple pass to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Trae takes the bait, tries to go left, and loses the handle right as he gets to Jaylen on the strongside. It’s a great job by Hauser to move his feet, but it’s even better design.
Additionally, Joe Mazzulla and co. have tried to disrupt the Hawks’ offense by pre-switching Hauser off the screen setter. Here’s the opening still frame from another illustrative play:
Hauser is on Saddiq Bey, who gets into position to set the screen, but Hauser and Jaylen recognize that and execute a pre-switch. That puts Jaylen on Bey and Hauser on an unnamed Hawk we can’t quite see yet.
Great job with the pre-switch between Hauser and Jaylen. Costs the Hawks precious shot clock time. Then Trae tries to go at Hauser Archipelago. Big mistake. Huge. pic.twitter.com/sZ7aPe9QSC— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 21, 2023
Bey has poor recognition and doesn’t realize it’s Jaylen on him now. Instead of clearing out and having Hauser’s cover set the screen, he moseys on up to Young and sets the pick. Once it’s set, you can almost see Trae Young’s mind go, “wait a second, that’s not Sam Hauser!” He smartly pulls back and has Bogie, who Hauser is now covering, set the screen. That puts Hauser and Trae in a similar position. As this plays out, the Celtics execute the same type of defense, but this time it’s one Marcus Smart forcing Trae to one side instead of 3 players.
Trae desperately wants to get Hauser isolated in the middle of the floor, which opens up driving either way to him, but the Celtics’ relentless discipline to keep him on one side of the floor has limited Young in both games so far. Trae might get hot one night from 3 and his numbers will probably look good, but there’s little chance he will find success attacking the Hauser Archipelago.