The NBA playoffs put even the most potent offenses to the test — particularly those that struggle to find an extra gear. That’s the reality facing the Atlanta Hawks as the team’s strongest offense in nearly 15 years has been effectively stifled this postseason.
Atlanta trailed only the Utah Jazz in offensive efficiency during the regular season — the second year in a row that the Hawks finished with a top-10 offense. Their catalyst, of course, was two-time All-Star Trae Young, who joined Tiny Archibald as the only players to lead the league in total points and assists over a full season.
But Young has struggled against the top-seeded Miami Heat, who hold a 3-1 series lead over the Hawks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Young is known for deep 3-pointers, crafty finishes near the rim and setting up his teammates for scoring opportunities, but Miami has smothered all of that.
Miami has prioritized forcing Young into either a bad shot from the perimeter or a worse decision while trying to create for others. The Heat have used a myriad of schemes to take one of the league’s most gifted playmakers out of rhythm. Young, who led the league in 3-pointers from at least 30 feet, has often been met at halfcourt nearly each time he brings the ball up, sometimes leaving Atlanta to trust another Hawk to carry the load.
Young’s points and assists are down dramatically from the regular season to the postseason, while his turnovers are up. And although Atlanta’s leading scorer shot a career-best 38.4 percent from deep during the regular season, the Heat have limited him to just 21.2 percent through the four games of this series — keying in on Young by limiting his path to the rim and staying in his face on long-range shot attempts.
“They basically kept us on the perimeter,” Hawks head coach Nate McMillan said after the team’s Game 4 loss, during which Atlanta was outscored 48-26 in the paint.
Though Young sealed a Game 3 victory via a go-ahead floater, the Hawks’ offense has struggled to create efficient looks at the basket against Miami’s deep bag of defenders, who have collectively pushed Young into an average contested shot distance of 19.2 feet throughout this series — over 2 feet deeper than his regular-season mark of 17.0 feet.
“They do a lot of switching,” Young said of Miami’s defense after scoring a season-low 8 points in Game 1. “They do a lot of switching things up, too — not just switching. They do a lot of trapping, so you gotta be ready to just read off of what they do, because they do a lot of different things at different times of the game.”
Young ranks among the league’s most proficient attackers off the dribble, but his drives per game in these playoffs have been drastically reduced from his regular-season numbers. And his shooting on contested looks has also fallen substantially, from 44.6 percent in the regular season to 32.6 percent in the first round. He made just 1-of-12 contested shots in Game 1 — tied for his worst single-game mark over 279 career appearances with at least 10 contested attempts.
Miami has thrown an array of impactful defenders at Young. Take, for example, undrafted third-year guard Gabe Vincent, who has held Young to 31 percent shooting during this series.
Here is Vincent not giving an inch of room until Young settles for an out-of-rhythm attempt from deep, which is capped with a charging Vincent getting in Young’s face.
Midway through the series, Young acknowledged the challenge of thinking ahead of Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has ensured that each Heat defender prioritizes obscuring Young’s path to the basket. Even when Young has been able to shake Vincent, he has been rewarded with matching up against the likes of P.J. Tucker, who has held him to 18 percent shooting this postseason.
When Vincent or Tucker aren’t guarding Young, the likes of Kyle Lowry (who guarded Young on a team-high 14 shot attempts), Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are quite eager to play their parts, picking up Young along the perimeter regardless of the Hawks’ collective efforts to wiggle him free. That consistent defense has kept Atlanta from creating regular drives to the basket. During Miami’s 24-point win over Atlanta in Game 4, the Heat held Young to a career-low one shot attempt from the paint.
On his lone layup attempt in Game 4, Young was able to push the ball in transition initially, but Miami’s wave of defenders forced him into an awkward gallop as Adebayo and Max Strus guarded the rim. This miss came after a 15-0 run for Miami that transformed the Hawks’ early 8-point lead into a 14-point halftime deficit.
Once the buzzer sounded, Atlanta found itself facing first-round elimination after entering the season with ambitions of joining the Eastern Conference elite. And the road next year may not be any easier: Only the Golden State Warriors are currently slated to have less cap space than the Hawks this offseason, per Spotrac. Atlanta’s creativity in upgrading its roster in the short term could make all the difference in giving its franchise centerpiece more help when the stakes heighten during the playoffs.
Young, whose 66 points so far this series mark his fewest over any four-game stretch since March 2021, had no problem explaining Miami’s success against him this opening round.
“…[T]hey have five people in the paint when I have the ball, so they’re doing a great job of showing help and not letting me get into the paint,” Young said after Game 4. “If I try to drive by somebody, they’re sending a double and forcing me to kick it to my teammates.”
“You gotta give them credit. We’ve gotta do a better job of figuring out how to get some more open looks and get them off me early, so I can create not only for myself, but for my teammates, too.”
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