Heading into the first round, the Boston Celtics drew the Atlanta Hawks--seemingly the most favorable matchup. The Toronto Raptors have a history of making things difficult, they struggled to rebound against the Chicago Bulls earlier in the season, and they have a long, irritating history with the Miami Heat.
However, the stat most failed to appreciate is that post-All-Star break, Atlanta had the fourth-best offensive rating in the NBA (120.1) and the fifth-best field goal percentage (49.7%). They are a .500 basketball team, but their offense turned up in the latter half of the season.
An offense led by Trae Young.
Through the first two games of the first round, Boston kept Young at bay. Better than that, they kept him quiet. He shot 14-of-40 from the field and 3-of-13 from three-point land combined in Games 1 and 2.
Then in Game 3, he figured it out. Young shot 12-of-22, scored 32 points, and helped the Hawks to their first victory in the series.
The next game saw his efficiency dip down a bit, but it was still a respectable game–11-of-26 overall and 4-of-10 from deep.
Game 5 was the cream of the crop. Young exploded for 38 points on 14-of-33 shooting, including 5-of-13 from distance.
So, what changed from the first two games?
Most fans’ gut reaction would be to scream out DROP COVERAGE, as in Game 3, Young’s floater started to fall at an alarming rate. But the issue wasn’t as much Boston’s drop as it was their micro-reactions within the coverage.
The Celtics weren’t avoiding drop coverage in Games 1 and 2. They showed Young a healthy mix of drop and switching.
On Young’s very first shot attempt of the game, Boston was in drop coverage.
Young gets a screen from Clint Capela and darts to the corner. Al Horford doesn’t switch, but he presses up just enough to take away the floater. Once Derrick White fights through the screen, Horford shifts back onto Capela, and White blocks Young from behind.
This play is only made possible by Marcus Smart’s help, though. It’s not much, but Smart slides over and cuts off Capela’s roll. Instead of getting to the rim for an alley-oop attempt, Capela has to take things slow, and in the end, White and Horford are able to execute defensively.
But Boston played some deep drop, too.
Here, Horford is all the way back in the paint after Jaylen Brown gets screened. Smart once again pump-fakes into the lane to offer help, but Young gets a solid look, deterred only by Brown’s rear contest.
By Game 2, it was Atlanta who made a change. They barely ran any high pick-n-roll offense for Young. Instead, he chose to attack matchups and play iso-ball.
There were a lot of clear-outs that led to stellar defensive plays like this White block…
…and plenty of deep three-point attempts with a bigger defender on him.
Sam Hauser was the beneficiary of these looks more often than not.
Young’s complacency and willingness to play primarily in isolation gave Boston’s defense a break. But that break was over when Game 3 rolled around.
With the series finally in Atlanta, Young and the Hawks decided to return the pick-n-roll game. And while the big takeaway coming out of Game 3 was how subpar Boston’s drop coverage was, it was far from the only look they threw at Young.
To start the game, the Hawks went to almost the exact same play they failed to execute at the beginning of Game 1.
Young dribbled to the corner, receiving a screen from Capela along the way. However, Jayson Tatum didn’t provide the same level of help Smart did. Capela was allowed to run freely to the rim, meaning Horford couldn’t step up as much, and Young drilled an easy floater.
But in the game's early stages, Boston was keeping up with Young. He started the game just 2-for-5 from the field, with his other make coming on a step-back jumper over Hauser.
In fact, the problems started to occur once the Celtics strayed away from drop coverage. Instead of sending Horford back into the paint, Boston switched him onto Young, and he got cooked twice.
Horford is a fine perimeter defender. For his age and at his position, he’s above average. But when matched up with a guard as quick and skilled as Young, it’s simply not a fair matchup.
So, in the second half, the Celtics went back to the drop. But it didn’t have the same effect.
Young comes right off this screen and nails a floater in the lane. Horford drops back, White is fighting to get around Capela, and nobody on the Celtics even tries to help on the play. Now that Young had found a rhythm, he was making Boston pay.
This was far from the only issue he caused the Celtics, however. Young was scoring in plenty of different ways. By the second half, he was stepping around screens and pulling up from deep; he was beating guys off the dribble one-on-one; and when the Celtics brought out their switch defense again, he got right by Horford.
He was even finding situation advantages.
It’s easy to watch this play and blame White. Young blows right by him and gets inside for an easy bucket. But context is important.
White was playing with five fouls and got absolutely zero help from anyone else on the Celtics. The Hawks clear the floor for Young, nobody on Boston shifts over to provide help, and White is forced to make the executive decision to defend without fouling to the best of his ability.
As much as the drop defense failed the Celtics, Young simply found ways to beat them in various coverages. But the biggest problem with the drop wasn’t the drop itself. It was those in the surrounding area.
In Game 1, Smart did a great job of giving White and Horford help. That stopped happening in Game 3.
Brown actually gets a decent enough rear contest on this play, something Boston has depended on in this series, but at the end of the day, this is just too easy for Young.
Instead of letting Young blow by Brown, Boston could have rotated. If White slid over to stop Young on the drive, Tatum could have blocked the pass to the corner and then ran out to guard Saddiq Bey if/when Young made the pass. That would have left Brown to sprint to the corner to cover De’Andre Hunter, and his momentum was already taking him in that general direction.
Little adjustments will help solve many of the problems Boston faced in Game 3. It’s less about abandoning the drop completely and more about perfecting it.
When Game 4 came around, the Celtics kept up the same approach. If anything, they got a bit lazier with their pick-n-roll defense.
This wasn’t a game-long issue, nor was it a team-wide problem, but defensive possessions such as this one allow Young to find a groove. Tatum lollygags around the screen, and by the time Young gets to his spot, Horford is left to desperately attempt a contest.
Tatum could have easily gotten around Capela quicker. And even if he stayed at the pace he played at, he could have jumped up to get in a rear contest.
The rear contest has worked wonders for Boston in this series. It may look like they are getting beat, and sometimes they are, but it’s often where they are most comfortable. Robert Williams perfected this strategy last season, and this year, White has utilized it most.
This is from Game 5.
Young clearly beats White around the screen, but just when he thinks he has an open layup, White pounces. He soars through the air, blocking Young. That’s how the Celtics can perfect drop coverage.
And even when White isn’t able to record the block, he’s made lift hard on Young.
Again, White gets beat around the screen here, but by the time Young is going up for a floater, he’s back. White waves his hand in Young’s vision, forcing him to readjust, which causes him to miss what would have been an easy shot.
Some may have been critical of his five-foul defensive performance in Game 3, but White has absolutely dominated Young this series. He’s spent 27:06 of game time guarding Young–the most of any matchup in the series and nine minutes more than any other player has spent on Young.
In that time, he’s held Young to 16-of-45 shooting from the field and 3-of-144 shooting from behind the arc. He’s forced five turnovers and blocked Young four times, with most of those occurring thanks to his elite come-from-behind defense.
Contesting from the back comes with its risks, though.
White attempts a similar play here, but Young just beats him. So instead of recording the block, White commits the foul and sends Young to the line with a chance to finish the and-one.
With Horford and Williams dropped back in the paint, the Celtics could have sent one up to meet Young in the lane. John Collins and Capela were down low, but whichever big man stayed back could have adjusted and contested Young’s pass attempt.
Again, it’s less about Boston’s coverages and more about the tiny adjustments they can make within them.
Then, in Game 5, the Hawks rolled out a heavy dose of pick-n-roll. They kept putting Young in that spot to run the show. With Dejounte Murray suspended, it was their only consistent source of offense.
Horford dropping back deep in the paint resulted in one of two scenarios–a floater or an open three. And Young made the most of both opportunities.
His three-point attempt might be deep–so deep Boston could just choose to live with it–but when Horford falls back, those looks are going to be open for Young. As for the foul-line floater, he’s made good on that shot since Game 3.
And with how many quality looks the Celtics gave Young, despite his mid-tier efficiency, he got into a rhythm. He even made the tough looks where Boston brought Horford out of the paint.
Young has gotten so comfortable with his floater–a look he shot 49.3% on during the regular season–that he’ll make it even with a hand in his face.
Plus, in the fourth quarter leading up to his game-winning three, Boston sent him to the line five times, where he shot 5-of-5 on free throws. He had the chance to get into a rhythm, and he took it.
But while Young’s float game may be infuriating to watch at times, the real problem may have nothing to do with his scoring. Instead, it’s his playmaking that’s giving the Celtics fits.
It all comes down to three players–Bey, Collins, and Jalen Johnson.
Here’s a quick video montage:
(And just know that six additional clips portraying the same situation could have been included in this spot.)
What do you see? What’s the common denominator of these plays?
All eyes shift to Young, whether it be by way of the pick-n-roll or someone on the Celtics ball-watching, and he gets one of his teammates an open shot.
But that’s not where the impact ends. Those three players aren’t just shooters feeding off of Young–they’re shooters feeding off of Young that help determine the outcome of the games.
In Atlanta’s three wins, Bey, Collins, and Johnson have combined to shoot 14-of-28 from behind the arc. In their three losses, that number plummets to 2-of-26. If those three are making their shots, the Hawks have won. If not, they’ve lost. And of their 14 makes in Atlanta’s two wins, Young has assisted on 10 of them.
For the most part, Boston has been content focusing on Young and letting those three get off relatively open looks. They’ve hustled out on some close-outs and let other shots go uncontested. But as great as Young has been in the Hawks’ wins, his playmaking for those three has been crucial.
Through the first five games of the series, the Celtics have thrown a bunch of different looks at Young. They’re focusing a lot on rear contests and perfecting their drop coverage, but with a player as offensively fluent as Young, buckets are going to happen.
Boston’s defensive coverages aren’t the problem. It’s their execution. Young will make shots and dish out assists, but the Celtics need to focus on making his life as difficult as possible.
That means providing help on the drive and scrambling in rotations. That means faking help and sprinting back out to contest a guy at the three-point line. That means hustling around screens and trying to contest from behind.
Young and the Hawks have found ways to hurt the Celtics on the offensive end. Now, it’s up to Boston to tighten things up and take care of business, especially if they hope to contain the likes of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, should they advance.