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The many failed attempts at stopping Trae Young

Trae Young is one of the most explosive offensive stars in the NBA. The Raptors threw their version of the kitchen sink at him and came up empty.

Trae Young is one of the most explosive offensive stars in the NBA. The Raptors threw their version of the kitchen sink at Young and the Hawks, and came up empty.

Many people understand Young as one of the NBA’s premier pick n’ roll decision makers, and that reputation is well earned and has its merits. The last time these two teams faced off, a similar chess match played out and the Raptors came out on the right side of it. With OG Anunoby unavailable for last nights game, Fred VanVleet on a limited knee, and the Raptors overall defensive punch waning, the Raptors were more limited in how they could disrupt Young at the point of attack. After all, they closed out their last game against him by switching Anunoby onto him, and they didn’t switch once last night. Their first move? With Khem Birch starting, they put him in drop and asked VanVleet to lock and trail.

The platonic ideal of drop defense is to protect the paint. If you execute it perfectly, you should end up with a shot outside of (roughly) 14-feet with a contest from the big, or a rearview contest from the primary defender. The rearview contest and chase is imperative, because it makes the offensive player feel claustrophobic and squeezed in the middle. If the player doesn’t shoot? You want the ball popping out up top or to the side for a reset or a controlled closeout.

Birch is letting Young get way too deep here, flat out. He’s not striking the middle ground that keeps the guard up court and still allows for contested air space on lobs. Young was walking him under his own basket, and the Raptors got shredded because of it.

These next clips are of Precious Achiuwa doing a much better job, process wise. Unfortunately, Young is so damn good that he can throw better defense to the wayside. Achiuwa’s drop isn’t as deep, because he’s quick enough to flip his hips and keep pace with Young – which is incredible, I can’t wait to see what a fully realized Achiuwa looks like on defense. Achiuwa’s presence forces Young to reroute constantly. There’s only one missed shot in the following package of plays, but I genuinely can’t fault Achiuwa for any of them.

First play, Achiuwa straight up stonewalls Young – hell yeah. Second play, his presence sends Young back up court and Young just makes a savant read with an extremely manipulative handle. The third play is ‘Spain Leak’ (the Raptors run this), and Siakam, Achiuwa and VanVleet have to be on a string to defend this action. Because Young gets such a head of steam, the Raptors are playing from behind. Achiuwa stops the ball, that’s good. Siakam tags the roll man, that’s good. VanVleet gives pursuit while trying to agitate the passing lane to Bogdanovic leaking into space, that’s good. Once Young has picked up his dribble, he looks Siakam off the tag and throws the lob. It’s just good offense. And the last possession is a 17-foot, contested jumper. A make, but a significantly better defensive outcome than the 8-foot floaters Young was getting all night. 

The Raptors made a massive run because of Achiuwa’s defense (and a nice bit of offensive punch from him on the offensive side of things). The counter from the Hawks? Abandon the pick n’ roll, keep Achiuwa out of these actions, and let Young cook.

He cooked.

Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn. They all tried at the point of attack, and no one came remotely close. And Young knew they weren’t close. He was waving screens off, and getting into the lane at will. This also fundamentally changed how the Raptors bigs navigated their contests of his floaters and lobs. When you’re backpedaling in drop, you can play the middle ground and manage both. When you’re the low man and Young has just shot into the lane like a bullet? Your momentum moves you one way, and it leaves an opening for any rim-bound bigs.

“He’s (Trae) obviously tough from everywhere. You kinda gotta decide what you’re gonna do with him. As far as taking away the shooting and that kind of stuff, obviously, he only made one three tonight but he did make all those tear drops.” Nick Nurse said after the Raptors loss to the Hawks. “I think it was a super hot night for him. We got to the half, and we didn’t really make many adjustments because I thought: ‘Okay, we’ll save a few of those for the second half’. As a coaching staff we probably waited a little too late, but then when we did do some of them we weren’t executing them. We just weren’t. And we’re not gonna have much of a chance if we’re not gonna execute the way we know we can do it and the way we’re supposed to do it. We just weren’t on the same page. So, a combination of him being really hot and our defensive execution wasn’t very crisp either, obviously.”

Young was so prolific in isolation that the Raptors gave him the Harden treatment and doubled him at half. It worked for this possession, but it’s not something they maintained. They immediately went back to single coverage, with VanVleet, Trent Jr., and Barnes all failing in that order.

The Raptors tried a few other things with varying success. They tried a very en vogue tactic called the ‘switch to blitz’ with Flynn and Achiuwa. They opted for the ‘hedge and recover’ with VanVleet and Barnes. They played Siakam at the level of the screen. They tried a lot. 

Once they found something that worked, the Hawks just relied on Young’s star power to beat it. The Raptors could have won this game if they had played better on the offensive end, and by extension, made the Hawks take the ball out of their own bucket more often, slowing down the easy transition buckets. But, there was no fix for Young tonight.

Have a blessed day.

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