As a top-five scorer and playmaker, Trae Young faces box-and-1 defenses, face-guarding, double-teams and traps often throughout the NBA season.
The relentlessness of how top-seeded Miami has been gunning for him, however, is unique. It hasn’t been like this since high school, when Young obviously stood out from the crowd, and of course now that smothering pressure is NBA-caliber. It’s one of the reasons the eighth-seeded Hawks trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series, 3-1.
“Obviously, it’s way better competition, so it’s hard for me to score a lot more through the double-teams and face-guards at this level, but it’s a challenge for me, and I’ve got to learn how to fight through it and make it easier for myself and for my teammates,” Young said after Sunday’s Game 4 loss at State Farm Arena. “I’ll figure it out, and that’s my plan.”
Young and the Hawks don’t have much more time to do so, now facing elimination in Game 5 on Tuesday in Miami. After Atlanta’s thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to take Game 3, 111-110, it seemed like the Hawks had perhaps started to get the ball rolling. They finally got in a shooting rhythm, center Clint Capela came back for Game 4, which Miami’s Kyle Lowry missed with a hamstring strain, and they came out firing 6-for-15 from 3-point range in the first quarter Sunday.
Instead, the Heat held the Hawks to a season-low 86 points. The series isn’t over, but Miami has already exposed enough of Atlanta’s flaws to spark conversation about the roster moving forward. If the Hawks can’t get reliable production elsewhere, it makes the Heat’s job simple (focus as much attention as possible on taking the ball out of Young’s hands) and lowers the Hawks’ ceiling.
The Hawks were so off in Game 4 it prompted questions about health, after Gabe Vincent stepped on Young’s foot in the second quarter, Capela looked winded and wing Bogdan Bogdanovic played only 21 minutes.
“Trae is fine,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Monday. “Clint is fine. Our guys are OK. Just getting the normal rehab that they normally get after games. ... Bogi, I thought his legs looked a little heavy last night. He put so much into the last game and thought that his legs were a little heavy last night, so I pulled him in that fourth quarter. I felt like if we could get that game within reach, I would have (gone) back with him. I decided to hold him out for the rest of the game. He is getting normal maintenance as the rest of our guys are getting today.”
In Game 4, Miami’s stout defense (No. 4 in defensive rating in the regular season at 108.4 and No. 2 among playoff teams so far at 104.0) prevented Young from driving, sending a double-team or crowding the paint when he tried. He couldn’t get to his floater, one of his go-to shots, much less all the way to the rim.
“They're doing a great job of not letting me get good looks and sending multiple guys, and if I've got it at the top of the key, they've got guys at the elbow and the block, so it's really just about getting good looks and figuring out how we can do that."
- Hawks star Trae Young, on Miami's defense
And when he got the ball to a teammate, apart from De’Andre Hunter early on (who scored 11 points in the first quarter, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc in that period, and finished with a team-high 24), the supporting cast couldn’t do much, either.
Young finished with nine points, going 3-for-10 from 3-point range and 3-for-11 overall, making one shot in the paint all night (in total, the Hawks were outscored in the paint 48-26). Three of his five assists came in the first quarter. He had five of the Hawks’ 15 turnovers. He also couldn’t get to the line (0-for-1 FT), with the Heat commanding the paint (overall, Atlanta struggled at the line, as well, going 11-for-20, or 55%).
Wing Kevin Huerter went 1-for-7 from the field (1-for-5 from 3-point range), finishing with four turnovers and four points. Bogdanovic was held to four points, going 1-for-6 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range.
Bogdanovic made three 3s in the fourth quarter of Game 3, forcing the Heat to pay more attention to him on defense, which then opened things up for Young, who scored 10 points in the final four minutes. The Hawks have needed more from Young in this series. Considering how the Heat are defending him, they’ve also needed another consistent scoring threat putting pressure on the defense.
“That’s kind of what happened in Game 3, you’ve got Bogi and guys knocking (down) shots, I didn’t score very many points until the fourth quarter,” Young said. “So the paint and the lane started opening up when Bogi and guys are knocking down shots, and I just think that’s the thing we’ve kind of got to do, is if they’re going to really pressure me and not let me get my shots up, it’s really, I’ve got to get my teammates good looks and they’ve got to knock them down, and I believe they will next game. If they do that, (Miami’s defense has) to show them more respect, then I’m able to get into more creases and gaps and get into the paint more.”
In the regular season, the Hawks owned the league’s No. 2 offensive rating (115.4), but in the playoffs they’re at 104.0, second worst among playoff teams. They’ve averaged 36.5 points in the paint vs. the Heat compared with 45.7 in the regular season.
Overall in the series, Young is averaging 16.5 points, six assists and six turnovers, shooting 32.1% from the field and 20.8% from 3-point range. In the regular season, he averaged 28.4 points, 9.7 assists and four turnovers per game, shooting 46% from the field and a career-best 38.2% from 3-point range.
He has totaled 24 assists and 24 turnovers.
“I think he’s letting the game come to him,” McMillan said of Young. “If you start forcing shots, they’re doing a good job of keeping pressure. There’s a guy in Trae’s face as soon as the ball goes through the net. We’ve done some things as far as playing him off the ball, trying to run him in some sets off the ball, but basically they’re playing him box-and-1 and that’s, they’re switching and committing two, three guys to him. So I think when he has an opportunity to get a good look, he’s taking that, but when you’ve got two guys on you, you’ve got to move the ball, and I think he’s trying to do that.”
Young doesn’t want to force things, either. He took only 11 shots in Game 4, and even a few of those, he said afterward, were probably forced.
But, that still leaves the Hawks with a conundrum heading into Game 5. Plus, they’re headed back to a hostile environment in Miami.
“I really didn’t get too many clean ones,” Young said of his shot attempts in Game 4. “So you’ve got to give them credit. We’ve got to do a better job of figuring out how to get some more open looks and get them off me early so I can create not only for myself but for my teammates, too. ... They’re doing a great job of not letting me get good looks and sending multiple guys, and if I’ve got it at the top of the key, they’ve got guys at the elbow and the block, so it’s really just about getting good looks and figuring out how we can do that. But, yeah, they’re definitely loading up and just trying not to let me score.”