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The stamp Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young put on their first-round series with the New York Knicks and in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers has apparently run dry.
Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle tend to have that effect on opponents.
The Sixers boast two of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, which makes it all the more curious coach Doc Rivers assigned well-tread 33-year-old Danny Green to Young in the series opener. Young's subsequent 35 points, 10 assists and surgical dismantling of the East's top defense netted a Game 1 win.
It has been a different story since Simmons and Thybulle drew the assignment. Young did not attempt a single shot against either in Game 2, according to the NBA's tracking data, and finished a 118-102 Game 2 loss 6 for 16 from the field (1 for 7 from 3-point range). The length of Philadelphia's young defensive guns delivered similar results in a 127-111 Game 3 win, even if Young finished with 28 points and eight assists.
Ten of those points in Friday's Game 3 came on Young's 3-for-4 shooting once the outcome was settled.
Asked what adjustments need to be made to better attack Philadelphia's amoebic defense, Young told reporters, "I don't know yet. We've got to figure it out the next couple of days. Obviously, if I had the answers, we wouldn't be talking about it right now." That leaves only one game, really, to crack the code.
Beyond basic statistics, Simmons and Thybulle have blown up Atlanta's entire offensive scheme. The Hawks are predicated on Young beating the first line of defense, drawing help defenders and either tossing lobs to bigs or whipping passes to shooters in the corners, if he doesn't unleash his floater. Playmaking from Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter often comes once Young gets the defense into rotation.
Not only are Simmons and Thybulle enveloping Young, but the Sixers are blitzing the All-Star point guard at the point of his pick-and-roll attack. Philadelphia's size with Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris also on the floor makes it difficult for Young — one of the game's best decision-makers — to even envision his next move.
Simmons, Embiid and Thybulle are three of the 12 players who received Defensive Player of the Year votes. Simmons finished second to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, first among perimeter defenders by a wide margin. Amazing what is possible when the coaching staff decides to weaponize them against one player. Friday's calf injury to Green may even force Rivers to start all three of his defensive weapons in Game 4.
If Young does navigate the blitz, the shot clock is ticking later than usual. Philadelphia trusts Embiid's athleticism to defend in space and recover to the rim for protection, so the Sixers' wing defenders can stay home on their assignments, closing Young's release valves. As a result, a Hawks team that had averaged 11 corner 3-point attempts in their first six playoff games were limited to five total in the last two losses.
"There is no kick-out option there," Bogdanovic told reporters after Friday's loss.
We can diagnose all the ways in which Philadelphia's defensive game plan grounded the Hawks, but it boils down to this: Atlanta's offense revolves around Young's ability to operate in space, while the Sixers have three of the NBA's best possible options to eliminate space, and that has disrupted his entire solar system.
"It's been big," Rivers told reporters following Friday's Game 3 victory. "Him and Matisse and George [Hill] tonight were the three guys. It's exhausting when you think about what we're asking them to do. Follow Trae Young around. ... It's tough, but [Simmons] is young. He's got endurances, so it's been good for us."
Atlanta's defense is not doing its offense any favors, either. The Sixers have shot 55% from the field and 47% from distance over the past two games, thanks in large part to poorly contested layups and open 3's. That has allowed Philadelphia to get its defense set, leaving Young to face a pack of awaiting wolves.
If Young cannot come up with a counterattack, the series the Hawks once led could end early for them.
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