Somebody guard Trae Young

A suggestion for the Bucks after analyzing Game 1 film

BY DAVID THORPE

Trae Young’s sublime bucket-getting and Hardenesque ability to draw free throws delivered him to the Eastern Conference finals with a 29-point playoff scoring average and a touch of swagger. His Hawks made it here after carving up some of the NBA’s best defenses—the Knicks and 76ers threw everything at him, and he torched them anyway. But for some reason, the Bucks treated him like any old point guard in Game 1.

He bludgeoned them for 48 points and 11 assists on 17-34 shooting from the field, 10-12 from the line and 4-13 from 3. If the Bucks don’t change some things on defense, they will go down in flames just as those first two elite defenses did. It’s that simple. 


After examining the game footage, I would recommend five simple goals for the Bucks to make things harder for Trae Young.

1. Don’t let Jeff Teague guard him

It only happened for two minutes, but Young looked as comfortable as a player on a practice court, scoring eight points from three shots in a game that was decided by three points. Young only made four 3s all game, two of them came in this short stretch of the second quarter. After Young’s second open 3 against Teague, Coach Mike Budenholzer took Teague out and never played him again. My guess is we won’t see Teague again while Young is on the floor.

2. No escape

It’s called an escape step, and it’s garbage against Trae Young. New rule: Never retreat when defending Young on the perimeter. Stay in his face and make him shoot a contested shot--or drive fast into the teeth of the defense. Against most players, giving a little space to cut off drives and force longer shots off the dribble is a fine idea. Not against the truly elite shooters/scorers like Young. Pressuring him at all times is key.  Make him cast his magic spells while being hounded every moment. Deliver him to crunch time exhausted. Turning him into a driver has its risks, but letting him launch uncontested 3s does too, and it’s easier on his body and mind. 

Related: this can NEVER HAPPEN. It’s inexcusable and unprofessional. Teams can dare some players to shoot 3s. That the Bucks had two players ignore Trae, while this wide open, says a lot.

3. Arms up

Defending Young as he drives requires his man, the guard, to stay as closely connected to his hips as possible without fouling, with arms up. The arms aren’t up to block any shots. The idea is to force Young to at least consider that his shot might be blocked, to occupy a corner of his brain. (Distraction is a killer. Try throwing a wadded ball of paper into a trash can. Now try it while checking your texts.) When Young has a clear shot at the rim he’s a far better finisher, like anyone else. His chasing defender must still try to influence the shot. 

This is how a defender can stay connected and apply some pressure to a driving or floating Young. Pat Connaughton runs alongside Young and lifts his right arm towards the ball. Young has to think about that arm.

4. Make the big men less predictable

The Bucks love to keep Brook Lopez close to the rim, because, duh, it’s hard to make layups over gigantic men. But Young is a master of the area below the free throw line we call the “second box.” He’d love to get to the rim, but anywhere beneath the free-throw line is like a layup for him, and the Bucks are giving a lot of it up by using “drop” coverage as Young comes off screens. Lopez, Bobby Portis, and even Giannis, should start their defensive possessions farther up the court. This will force Trae to drive all the way to the rim, either passing out or trying to score over their long arms. 

While they’re doing this, get your hands up, Bucks big men! In Game 1, several times Bucks big men began with arms down, and Young took a shot in the time it took for Lopez or Portis to raise them up. Arms at sides also allow Young’s deadly lob passes, which can be deflected if defended right at least some of the time.

Predictability helps Young. Right now he knows what the Bucks bigs will do, which makes it comfortable. So the Bucks should mix it up. Start low and lunge out, start higher and then retreat, taking away the layup and giving up the floater. 

It’s a tradeoff. Lifting centers stresses the other Bucks defense, to be sure. Help defenders must do their part, pinching in to contest those lobs, scrambling out to shooters when Young kicks the ball out, and helping on the glass at all times. The great playmakers cause these kinds of problems for defenses. That is why they are great. But with connected defensive guards and a more aggressive big man picking him up higher up in the box, Young’s shots will get tougher. 

5. Stop fouling Young

Period. Don’t foul him on rebounds. Don’t foul him reaching to make a play on the ball. Don’t foul him setting screens. And for goodness sakes, Giannis, don’t foul him by hitting him in the face as he takes a 30-footer. Young’s craft will earn him plenty of free throws without the Bucks helping him out by actually fouling him. The truth is that, all playoffs long, Young’s efficiency from the field has only been so-so. Thirty-four of 103 3-point attempts, 46 percent from 2.

At the free-throw line, though, he has made 96 of 103. Wow. 

This is doable for the Bucks. Always be in Young’s face on 3s. Stay connected, with arms up. Have big men start higher up the box to meet Young earlier, with arms up, a lot but unpredictably. Stop fouling him. 

Perhaps Trae Young will use his incredible craft to score over the big men at the rim or find Hawks shooters who will blitz the Bucks. If so, then the Hawks’ offense is just better than the Bucks’ defense. But what won’t work is giving Young so much space and time to take the 3s and floaters he loves. It’s OK if he scores 40, but make him take 40 shots to do it. 

These instructions on the Bucks’ locker room white board are more easily written than executed. If done right, the Bucks have a great chance at winning Game 2 and reasserting themselves as favorites in the series. If not … trouble.


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