How the Heat gave Trae Young a wake-up call, forcing Hawks star into his worst habits at the worst time

How the Heat gave Trae Young a wake-up call, forcing Hawks star into his worst habits at the worst time

If Trae Young thought the ease with which he waltzed through his first postseason was going to be the norm, shimmying around and taking bows inside Madison Square Garden like he owned the place, he just got issued a reality check courtesy of the Miami Heat. They made Young’s life a living hell before mercifully finishing a five-game gentleman’s sweep of the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. 

Beyond averaging just 15.4 points while being held to single digits in two of the five games, Young’s series numbers look abysmal.

  • 30 turnovers against 22 made shots
  • 18 percent 3-point shooting
  • 31 percent overall shooting

Young bookended the series with a combined 19 points on 3-for-24 shooting, including 0 for 12 from 3, and 12 turnovers in Games 1 and 5. He posted 10 turnovers in Game 2 and never topped eight assists in any game. For all intents and purposes, he was erased, a credit to Miami’s defense to be sure, but also a stark reminder that Young is not yet the kind of superstar that can thrive independent of his own terms. 

He needs to be able to get into the paint. He needs to be covered for defensively. Miami kept him from doing the latter, and they went after him every chance they got on the defensive end. The math of Young is simple: He has to create a ton of points to come out as a plus when you subtract all the points he’s responsible for giving up, either directly or indirectly. He was minus-58 for the series. 

After the Game 5 loss, Young said the Heat defense was “for sure” the best he’s ever faced. “The numbers would say that,” he said. “I didn’t shoot well. I couldn’t get to certain places I normally get to.”

That place, again, is the paint. When he can’t get there, similar to James Harden, he starts becoming too reliant on 3-point shooting, which, contrary to popular belief, has not historically been Young’s strength. 

Early last season, I wrote a piece in which I made the argument that Young is, and long has been, an average shooter disguised as a great one. Young shot 36 percent form 3 in his lone college season, 32 percent his rookie season, 36 percent his second season and 34 percent last season. 

Do I realize his numbers are compromised by virtue of his difficult shot profile? Yes. Do I also think he chooses to take a lot of difficult shots? Yes. You can talk shooting talent all you want, and there’s no denying Young’s talent, just as there’s no denying the impact the mere threat of his shooting, whether he’s making them or not, has on the defenses that have to stretch and bend themselves all over the place in a mostly futile effort to contain him. 

This season, Young put together a terrific shooting campaign, raising his 3-point number to 38.2 percent on eight attempts per game with a true-shooting north of 60, which is pretty elite territory. He didn’t get better as a shooter (he’s always had elite shooting talent), he just took better shots, or at least fewer bad ones. 

I loved Young’s increased emphasis on the midrange, where he made 52 percent of his shots between between 14 feet and the 3-point line, a 96th percentile mark, per Cleaning the Glass. His floater remains butter, as evidenced by his game-winner in Game 3. This is when Young’s at his best, spraying a variety of shots and doing damage as a scorer and passer from the outside in. Miami knew that, and game-planned to force Young into his worst habit, which is falling deeply in love with the 3-ball, with the operative term being deep. 

After Game 1, when Young jacked 10 of his 11 shots from beyond the arc, nearly all of which were somewhere between heavily contested and outright ill-advised, Young had this to say: “If you’re watching the game, you see they have five people in the paint when I have the ball. They’re doing a great job of showing help and not letting me get into the paint. If I try to drive by somebody, they’re sending a double and forcing me to kick it to my teammates.” 

For starters, let’s be clear: Miami obviously did not have five people in the paint when Young had the ball. At least one defender was guarding him on ball 20-25 feet from the basket. Usually two or three were pulled out high for pick-and-roll coverage and traps, and the other help defenders can’t just stand in the paint off ball, that’s illegal. Hyperbole aside, Young’s point is that every defender was either within a step of paint or his path to the paint, and they were all ready to converge on him the moment he moved downhill. 

When surveying the scene before him, he saw, in some variation, a lot of this:


ESPN/Screenshot

Young has all five sets of defensive eyes focused squarely on him. This is what happens when you’re a superstar and you always have the ball. You’re easy to track; not necessarily easy to defend, but easy to track. Hawks president Travis Schlenk has spoken with me numerous times about his and the coaches’ efforts to get Young to see the value of moving more without the ball, where tracking him becomes a more difficult prospect. This is something he still needs to commit to and work on, but it also requires the Hawks fielding enough capable playmakers that Young can be freed to move off the ball. 

Schlenk has tried to construct his roster with that in mind. From Kevin Huerter to Bogdan Bogdanovic and DeAndre Hunter, who didn’t have a great season but has evolved as a self-creator, you can see the idea of multiple handlers on the court. But the gap between those guys and Young is so great that it’s difficult to go away from Young creating everything when the offense ranks as elite and the defense leaves you no wiggle room. 

As constructed, the Hawks are almost entirely reliant on Young being magical. 

In the regular season, he was, and it still only landed them in the No. 9 seed, having to win two play-in games to even make the playoffs. Young led the league in total points and assists. He has a case for first-team All-NBA. But postseason play is different. Young was awesome in last year’s playoffs, but there were, and are, qualifiers to note. 

The Knicks were about as weak a No. 4 seed as you’ll find in the playoffs, and the Sixers, while boasting a stout defense with Ben Simmons on the perimeter and Joel Embiid anchoring the backline, still had weaker defenders to hunt. He still only shot 31 percent from 3 through his first postseason, but he hit enough big ones and exploited the other holes. 

With the Heat, there are no defensive holes. There is little drop-off, if any at all, across their perimeter defenders. Young might start with P.J. Tucker or Kyle Lowry harassing him, call for a screen, then get Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo switched onto him. Maybe two of those guys gang up. Max Strus stuck with him. Young was complimentary of Gabe Vincent’s defense. All these guys were able to contain Young one on one. That’s the key to this. 

For all the talk about Young seeing multiple defenders gathered in his general vicinity, for most of the series he wasn’t beating the one directly in front of him. Yes, the Heat sprung traps and helped down with their wings, but for the overwhelming majority of the series, Young simply wasn’t beating the first guy. They all stayed in front of him. They all crowded his space. They all got physical with him. And the bottom line is that Young, from the very first quarter of the series, too easily gave into that frustration. He said to heck with the hassle and started hoisting up 3s. 

Again, he made 18 percent of them. Through two postseasons, Young has made 30 percent of his 3s. Numbers don’t lie. So now he can’t get in the paint and the 3s aren’t falling, so he starts pressing to make something happen against a defense that is bigger and stronger than him. And that’s how it spirals with turnovers. That’s how the Heat took one of the most indefensible regular-season weapons and turned him into a postseason product of his worst habits. 

it’s not really a knock on Young; it’s just a reality check. These elite defenses are relentless. The Boston Celtics just put Kevin Durant through a torture chamber. The Toronto Raptors are outfitted with wall-to-wall wings who can switch everything, and James Harden can’t find an inch to score inside the arc. 

Presumably, Young is going to find himself in a lot of these postseason matchups moving forward, and if he continues to operate primarily on ball, he’s going to have to figure out ways to get to his money spots even when everyone knows where he’s going, or where he’s trying to go. 

That’s what makes Chris Paul great. He’s never sped up, never operating on anyone else’s terms, never settling for bad shots. Being equally dangerous off-ball is what makes Stephen Curry great. Whatever evolution Young taps into, and whatever roster moves the Hawks are able to make this summer, it has to be with this series in mind. 

Trae needs help, but he also needs to make better decisions, shoot better, defend better, play better. His first postseason was a love story. His second was a horror show. A good player would attribute such struggles to the defense they faced, but great players don’t get that excuse. That’s what makes them great. They might find the sledding tough, they might struggle, but they are not going to be denied, at least not to this degree, for an entire series. They are going to find success, however deeply it may hide itself. Trae wasn’t able to do that. He was checkmated at every turn. This was a wake-up call. Time will tell if he has an answer for it. 

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