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The Long Two: Deandre Ayton, Trae Young shine in Conference Finals debuts

Two of the 2018 Draft’s brightest young stars have found playoff success in different ways, but each is helping push his team into NBA championship contention.

Between Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton, these playoffs have been heavily shaped by the top of the 2018 NBA Draft. Ayton and Young are the last two standing and they’re already making an impact in their first Conference Finals’ appearances.

Deandre Ayton, punishing small-ball

Coming into the playoffs, the biggest unknown on an otherwise reliable Suns roster was how Deandre Ayton, in just his third NBA season and with a spotty defensive track record, would hold up under the playoff microscope for a team with legitimate championship aspirations. Consider those questions resolved until further notice. Ayton has been central to Phoenix’s success on both ends of the floor, offering efficient scoring and solid back-line defense as the only conventional big man in Monty Williams’ rotation. There’s plenty of praise to give Ayton for his defense in these playoffs (though it remains slightly inconsistent), but it’s his play on the other end of the floor that we’ll highlight here.

Ayton’s dunk with less than a second remaining to seal Game 2 against the Clippers was a deserved culmination of the best stretch of play of the 22-year-old’s life, but also a representation of what he’s been asked to do offensively. Not all of his shots have been as simple as tapping the ball through the rim, but most involve little more than catching the ball and finishing. That isn’t to say that Ayton’s contributions don’t require great effort, only that the way he expends energy on offense is different from how on-ball workhorses do.

Excepting Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, playing center in the current era of spread pick-and-roll requires constant movement, continual re-screening and a feel for how opposing defenses will react to ball-handlers. Ayton has embraced and improved upon all three areas, making him an integral part of one of the league’s smartest offenses. It’s his job to not only create space for his guards but find openings behind and between defenders where he can make himself a target for a pass. In two-man actions with Booker, that usually means rolling to the rim and either finishing the play himself or attracting enough defensive attention that someone else can.

On average, Ayton runs about 1.3 miles per game on offense — the third-highest mark on the team behind Booker and Mikal Bridges — and more than 84 percent of his shots in the playoffs have been assisted. He’s 22-of-29 from the field in two games against the Clippers, almost entirely off of shots set up by his movement and teammates’ passes:

Phoenix’s offense has often looked best when Ayton is involved in some capacity — either rolling hard to the rim, sneaking into empty pockets of the defense or attacking the offensive glass — because it’s usually the product of the system working as intended. Even when he isn’t directly involved in the action, Ayton has a knack for slipping into space and making himself an option in both the halfcourt and transition:

Only one player in the Clippers’ regular rotation, Ivica Zubac, stands over 6-foot-8; against the Mavericks and Jazz, L.A. could get away with playing small lineups that could switch screens and spread the floor because Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert couldn’t punish their smaller defenders on offense. L.A. has no such hiding place against Ayton, whose superior strength, reach and athleticism pushed Ty Lue to the point of starting Zubac in Game 2 to counter Ayton’s size. The Clippers will likely continue searching for ways to pull Ayton from the rim on defense and limit his touches on offense, but their efforts to date have done nothing to slow him down.

Trae Young, beating the drop

The most important defensive tactical question the Bucks faced ahead of the Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t how they would match up individually with Trae Young and the rest of Atlanta’s perimeter attack, but how they’d deal with Young in the pick-and-roll. Milwaukee is known — at times, even mocked — for its reliance on keeping Brook Lopez in the paint against the two-man game and conceding floaters, while Young has earned a reputation for killing drop coverage with one of the best floater and lob-pass combinations in the NBA.

For most of Game 1, each side stuck to its comforts, with the Bucks dropping its big men deep into the lane while Young (and Kevin Huerter, to a lesser degree) sauntered into floater after open floater. Young finished with 48 points and 11 assists in all, with a tidy 17-of-34 shooting line to boot, and looked entirely comfortable against one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses.

Yet despite Young’s monster performance, Milwaukee needn’t necessarily scrap its defensive approach for the rest of the series. Lopez is one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, particularly when it comes to playing the ball-handler and the roll man in pick-and-roll. He positions himself to be able to take away either option at a moment’s notice, and his deceptive length allows him to bother shots even with late challenges.

A Young floater, on average, isn’t efficient enough to outweigh the value of an open layup or 3, and by dropping him back into the lane and having Young’s defender (usually Jrue Holiday) fight over the screen, the Bucks could defend the pick-and-roll two-on-two while other three defenders stayed home and denied kickout 3s. As a team, Atlanta shot 11-of-25 from four to 14 feet — a less efficient scoring rate than their 96.6 halfcourt offensive rating for the game.

But showing a surgical pick-and-roll operator the same look on every possession tends to hit a point of diminishing returns, and by playing him the same way for so long, the Bucks allowed Young to comfortably get where he wanted and settle into a rhythm:

Eventually, the deluge of floaters opened up lobs and laydowns to Capela and Collins when Milwaukee’s bigs lurched to contest Young’s shot:

The Bucks closed the game with a more versatile defensive lineup capable of switching screens, and the Hawks could no longer get the kind of penetration that led to so many open looks earlier in the game. And while both the Bucks’ starting and closing lineups played Atlanta to a draw, the Hawks outscored Milwaukee by 14 in just 20 minutes with Lopez on the floor, even if the rim was more open without a true center to protect it.

Mike Budenholzer might lean into that approach more often in Game 2, though playing Lopez any less would risk running Giannis Antetokounmpo minutes into the mid-40s or using a dangerous amount of Bobby Portis. The more tempered solution might be bringing Lopez slightly higher up on the floor and, most importantly, varying coverages against a player who has proven almost impossible to slow down.

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