Trae Young shocked the Bucks in Game 1, but Milwaukee's brilliant defensive tweaks helped push momentum back in their direction. As expected before the series, the battle between Young and the Bucks defence has defined the Eastern Conference Finals thus far.
As this unexpected Eastern Conference Finals matchup heads to Atlanta tied at one game apiece, we've already seen the first two games in Milwaukee hinge on the exact pivot point many highlighted before the series.
Trae Young has been the breakout star of these playoffs. His iridescent Game 1 performance helped Atlanta steal home court advantage for the third straight round. Milwaukee managed to counter back in Game 2, but their hopes of reaching the franchise's first Finals in 47 years rest on their defensive tactics against Young.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Bucks-Hawks series shifts to Atlanta for Game 3
The Bucks entered Game 1 with two distinct courses of action to slow Young down, each catered to the personnel on the floor at that time.
The first centred around Brook Lopez. With Lopez acting as a traditional defensive anchor, the Bucks used drop coverage on pick-and-rolls to take away shots at the rim. Jrue Holiday hounded Young on the perimeter and funnelled him into the paint where Lopez was waiting to cut off lobs and contest shots in the restricted area.
Their other option was to use a switching scheme built around small-ball. Lineups featuring PJ Tucker, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bobby Portis at center are more mobile and can more easily exchange defensive assignments with perimeter players. This type of defence has dominated the last half-decade of the NBA, and Milwaukee's desire for that flexibility was the impetus behind acquiring Tucker in March.
Against a player as dynamic as Young, both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. Drop coverage allows Holiday to go all out to prevent pull-up threes knowing there is a rim-protection safety net behind him, but it does grant Young freedom from floater range. Switching is better at preventing those mid-range looks but it can leave centers on an island against Young and guards alone to try to box out Clint Capela and John Collins.
Young was clearly not fazed by those two options in Game 1. In 41 minutes, he scored 48 points on 17-for-34 shooting while dishing out 11 assists, dismantling the Bucks' defence. For every in-game adjustment the Bucks made, Young had an immediate and devastating response.
BY THE NUMBERS: Young's historic Game 1
12 of Young's 34 shots were floaters in the mid-range opened-up drop coverage. He made seven of those shots, with six coming directly over a contest from a dropping center. He looked completely at home in the space the Bucks provided, leaning on his now trademarked floater to carry the Hawks back in a game they trailed most of the way.
It would have been easy for the Bucks to walk away from Game 1 with the belief that drop coverage was the problem. In Young's 41 minutes, Milwaukee was -16 when Lopez was on the floor and +2 without him. By the end of the game, the Bucks had no choice but to play small because Young had effectively shot them out of their base defence.
Drop coverage is a calculated risk. It is designed to allow the exact shots that Young has mastered. It's built to be effective over the long haul of an 82-game season but a playoff series can easily become an outlier. On balance, allowing semi-contested floaters is a good defensive strategy but Young is capable of breaking that math.
The Bucks could have reasonably held course based on the belief the numbers should eventually flip back in their favour. That system rigidity has been Mike Budenholzer's game plan - a much-maligned one at that - for almost all of his time in Milwaukee.
To his credit, that wasn't the path he chose in this series.
In Game 2, the Bucks showed they had a third defensive option. Not a dramatic strategic overhaul, but a blend of their two systems together.
Milwaukee started the same lineup in Game 2 and had Lopez play largely the same drop coverage. Instead of instructing the four perimeter players to play straight-up around him, though, the Bucks started to switch one through four on every interchange that didn't involve their center.
This hybrid switching system is incredibly hard to pull off. It requires a ton of coordination and can look catastrophic if communication breaks down. When done successfully, though, it's a nearly perfect defence to slow down a modern offence with a paint-bound center.
With Lopez stationed on Clint Capela around the rim and the other four Bucks swarming the perimeter, the Hawks looked flummoxed. Atlanta had just five points in the first six minutes of the game and just 45 at halftime.
This seemingly straightforward tweak gave the Hawks fits all night. Young scored just 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting, but his season-high nine turnovers are a far more concerning number. The Bucks cut off every passing lane, doubled at every opportune moment and pressured every dribbler. In a complete inverse of Game 1, Milwaukee was +31 in the minutes when Lopez and Young were on the floor together.
Young has proven every doubter wrong so far in these playoffs and he'll have an answer for what the Bucks showed him in Game 2. Both sides have plenty of moves left to make and the story of this series is far from finished.
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