The proliferation of 3-pointers and the (alleged) death of the midrange game often dominate the NBA conversation this time of year. But there’s a small part of the court that might be just as important yet doesn’t get much attention: inside the paint but outside the restricted area. That very specific battleground could very well decide the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.
Over the past three seasons, only two NBA teams have allowed more shots from that area of the floor than the Milwaukee Bucks, according to Second Spectrum. During that same time, just five players have attempted more shots from that region than Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young.
During the first two rounds of these playoffs, no player attempted more of those shots than Young (97). The next-closest player, though, is Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (87). How the Bucks and Hawks defenses, respectively, deal with Young and Antetokounmpo in the back of the paint will be a significant factor in determining which of their teams moves on to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
In the lone regular-season matchup between these two teams that Young actually played, 11 of his 17 shots came from this area of the floor. He connected on just three of those 11 attempts, bothered by the size and length of Brook Lopez in front of him and Jrue Holiday behind him.
Young is certainly capable of making those shots, though, and of capitalizing in different ways on teams forcing him to create offense from that area of the floor, rather than at the rim or outside the arc.
He toyed with New York Knicks centers Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson in the first round, keeping them consistently off balance as they tried to split the difference between affecting Young’s pull-up and floater game and preventing lobs or dump-off passes to Clint Capela and/or John Collins. It didn’t work, and neither did the Knicks’ efforts to send help in his direction after he tore them up with floaters and pull-ups in Game 1. He simply slung the ball to one of the Hawks’ many shooters dotting the 3-point line.
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Young shot 21 of 44 from inside the paint and outside the restricted area during that 4-1 series victory, while also assisting on 15 teammate baskets with passes from that location.
Young did not convert his shots from that area at as high a rate against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers as he did against New York, but 18 of his 76 assists during the series originated with a pass thrown from that spot, and he created 23 free throws there, as well. He used changes of pace and direction, plus more than a little ref-baiting guile, to get Embiid and Matisse Thybulle, in particular, to foul him on attempts that likely had little chance of being converted in the first place.
The Sixers, though, were a much more foul-happy team than the Bucks were during the regular season. No team sent its opponents to the foul line less, as a share of field-goal attempts, than the Bucks. And it’s not as though that was out of the ordinary: Milwaukee ranked sixth-best in the same statistic last season and first the year before.
The Bucks have a tricky balance to strike in this series. Their defense is designed to force Young to that area of the floor, but they have to do it while ensuring that a) Lopez and/or Antetokounmpo forcefully contests his shot; without b) giving up a lob pass to Capela or Collins; while c) Holiday1 contests Young from behind; and d) everyone else stays home on shooters, so as to avoid Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanović or Danilo Gallinari going off like they each have at various points this postseason. Most importantly, everyone involved needs to avoid fouls that send Young to the line for 2 (or 3) relatively easy points; he has been an 86.1 percent free-throw shooter during his three-year career.
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It’s an unenviable task, and one that the Knicks and Sixers — the fourth- and second-best regular-season defenses — each failed to varying degrees. Just as important to the Hawks ending up where they are now, though, has been their playoff defense. Atlanta held New York and Philadelphia to a combined 107.7 points per 100 possessions during the first two rounds, a defensive rating that would have ranked in the league’s top five during the regular season.
The Bucks offense — as dreadful as it has seemed at times during their own run to the conference finals — presents a different level of difficulty. Antetokounmpo, specifically, poses a different challenge than either Embiid or Julius Randle, largely because he is surrounded by effective shooters whom the Hawks may not be able to ignore in order to clog the paint.
How they’re able to balance defending the 3-point line with keeping Giannis as far away from the rim as possible will be paramount to their defensive success. Even if they can just make him shoot from the back of the paint as opposed to inside the restricted area, that would be a major benefit. Antetokounmpo has converted restricted-area shots at a 78.7 percent clip over the past three seasons, per Second Spectrum, but his field-goal percentage on shots inside the paint but outside the restricted area is “just” 54.9 percent during that same span. That trend has held in the playoffs, with even lower conversion rates: 74.7 percent in the restricted area, 50.9 percent from the back of the paint.
Whether and how often Antetokounmpo is able to get all the way to the rim will be determined by a variety of factors; one of those is how the Bucks choose to align their rotation — and how that affects the Hawks’ preferred defensive matchups.
P.J. Tucker started games in place of the injured Donte DiVincenzo during the second round against the Brooklyn Nets because the Bucks needed him on the floor as often as possible to defend Kevin Durant. But the Hawks don’t have a Durant-esque big wing for Tucker to bother all series long.2 It might make more sense, then, for Milwaukee to start someone like Bryn Forbes or even Pat Connaughton to provide Young a somewhat more challenging defensive assignment.
On offense, Tucker mostly hangs around in the corner, which would allow the Hawks to stash Young on him or else dare the Bucks to involve Tucker in the primary action if they want to target Young defensively. Forbes and Connaughton are more frequent screeners than Tucker for Antetokounmpo, and while they may not be able to take advantage of Young on the glass, they’ll make him work harder for the length of the offensive possession simply by moving around more and tiring him out. That’s something both the Knicks and 76ers proved themselves largely unable to do, as Young spent the majority of those series defending Reggie Bullock and either Thybulle, Danny Green (before an injury forced him out of the series) or Furkan Korkmaz.
The tougher part of the Antetokounmpo assignment — defending him one-on-one in space — will likely fall to some combination of Capela and Collins, and possibly rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu.3 It may seem counterintuitive to put a center on Antetokounmpo, but having Capela guard him as opposed to defending Lopez (who is largely a floor-spacer for the Bucks, as opposed to a post-up threat) allows him to stay closer to the rim, where he can have his greatest effect. If the Bucks want to run their offense through Lopez in the post to take advantage of the size advantage he has on Collins, I’m sure the Hawks wouldn’t mind.
The Hawks may also resurface a tool they used in the second round: fouls. Antetokounmpo was once a reliable free-throw shooter, knocking down at least 72.4 percent of his foul shots in five consecutive seasons. He’s dramatically declined over the last two years, though, and his struggles have reemerged during the playoffs.
But whereas the free-throw struggles of Ben Simmons sapped him of his aggressiveness against the Hawks and strangled his own team’s offense, Antetokounmpo largely has not had that problem yet. Even after going 6 of 19 from the line in the first three games of the Nets series, he kept attacking, earning 41 shots from the charity stripe during the final four contests. He had some ugly misses and only 23 makes (56.1 percent), but the pressure he put on the basket was just enough to loosen things up for his teammates elsewhere. The Bucks will need that space again — and for Giannis to convert from the back of the paint — to score at an efficient enough clip to beat the Hawks.
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