The Golden State Warriors couldn’t stop Trae Young from doing whatever the heck he wanted in the first half.
Young thrives on being in control. He’s a master puppeteer, manipulating his defender — and by extension, the backline defense — through a myriad of ways. He has contingencies against every kind of pick-and-roll coverage.
Sending drop coverage against Young is practically giving him unlimited license to attack in any way he wants. Trail behind him and force him mid-range or within floater range — where he had a blistering 47% success rate and scored 0.962 points per possession last season, 68th percentile according to Synergy — and he will pull up for a jumper or a runner.
When it comes to deep-range shooting, Young’s numbers can be fool’s gold for defenses. He’s a career 34.2% shooter on threes. He’s shooting 31.3% this season on 5.8 attempts per game. But that hasn’t tempered his audacity for pulling up — a trait that has often drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry.
Give Young plenty of space in drop coverage — or in transition opportunities without picking him up near half-court — and he will burn you from deep.
Commit heavily on the threat of his scoring on screen-and-rolls, and he will use all sorts of tricks as a ball handler: snaking pick-and-rolls, looking off defenders, passing to perimeter threats to punish overhelping, and all sorts of pass deliveries — all with differing angles, speed, and timing — to get his teammates involved in the action.
Switching ball-screens — which can often engender perimeter mismatches — can also be favorable for someone like Young, who licks his chops when he has a slow-footed big defending him. He is a master at forcing switches.
Kevon Looney was victimized twice:
Young draws out the switch in the first clip above, after Andrew Wiggins gets caught up on the screen. The Hawks set “double drag” screens in the second clip to force the switch. Both instances result in scoring possessions
Devoid of further context, Young’s final stat line gives off the impression of an excellent offensive performance. He scored 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field, including 4-of-8 on threes. He dished out 9 assists. He scored efficiently, as evidenced by his 65.7% True Shooting.
But adding in the element of context will reveal how much the Warriors limited Young’s touches in the second half, therefore limiting his opportunities to take control and manipulate the Warriors defense. He scored 21 points on 14 shots in the first half, along with 7 assists; he was limited to 7 points on only 6 shots in the second half, with only 2 assists.
The Warriors unleashed a box-and-one in the second half that has often been used against Curry in the past, a “junk” defensive scheme that is contingent on letting everyone else create and score in lieu of a singular offensive weapon such as Curry and Young.
The Warriors used it in spurts against Young in the second half, switching up the “one” in the box-and-one that was assigned to faceguard Young, while everyone else was in a zone configuration. On some possessions, the Warriors threw out length in the form of Wiggins. Even Curry took a few turns on Young, to mixed results.
But the most successful implementation came from Gary Payton II, who used his speed and physicality to stick to Young relentlessly, denying him the ball and forcing him to pass to teammates.
The name of the game was simple: put the shot-creation onus on any Hawk not named Trae Young. Per the clips above, the Warriors chose to live with a Danilo Gallinari corner three and layup inside, decisions that worked out pretty well for them.
“(The box-and-one) was on the fly, just changed it up and showed them different looks,” Payton said. “We seen that they were having trouble scoring with the box-and-one without (Young) actually creating for others. We stuck with it.”
Box-and-ones are harder to recognize when they are implemented on someone such as Young, as compared to when they are thrown out against Curry. Young handles the ball a significant amount — 68.2% of his possessions last season were as the pick-and-roll ball handler. Including passes to teammates that resulted in a shot attempt, Young generated 1.085 points per pick-and-roll possession — good for 87th percentile, per Synergy.
On the other hand, Curry is a heavy off-ball operator. As such, box-and-ones on him take the form of Curry trying to shake off his man, all while the rest try to free him up through screens or resort to creating their own offense.
Recognizing the danger of the ball in Young’s hands in the pick-and-roll, the Warriors — alongside the box-and-one — started hedging ball-screens.
“Hedging” is when the roll-man defender jumps out and over the screen to impede the progress of the ball handler, giving time for the on-ball defender to recover, after which the roll-man defender recovers back to his original assignment.
Hedging aims to minimize unfavorable mismatches on the perimeter. Looney — victimized by Young on switches during the first half — perfectly hedged on a couple of possessions that prevented a first-half repeat.
While the Warriors were ultimately able to find a solution against Young, the Hawks couldn’t do the same to Curry, who broke out of a scoring “slump” by dropping 50 points, 7 rebounds, and 10 assists, on 50/47/100 shooting splits and 74.1% True Shooting.
Curry torched a Hawks defense that was 26th in defensive rating going into the game. He was utterly ridiculous.
But more than the fact that he had a performances for the ages, in which he became the oldest player in NBA history to score 50-plus points and dish out 10-plus assists in a game, Curry seemed to enjoy turning the tables on the Hawks and Young, referring to the box-and-one they used to limit his counterpart.
“I loved it,” Curry said. “It was great to be on the elbow instead of running around myself.”