There’s the game, and then there’s the game within the game. We’re not talking about practice, not practice. We’re talking about the games within the game, man. The Philadelphia 76ers handled business in game 5 against Washington, even without their superstar and MVP caliber talent, Joel Embiid. We don’t know yet if Embiid will be available to play in this series, but if you didn’t know his injury (a slight tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee) and all you knew was that he was listed as “day-to-day” you’d have little doubt that he’d be out there in some capacity during this series. So whether Joel is not available or available but limited, stopping their next opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, takes on even greater importance now.
Limiting the Hawks means slowing down the Oklahoma product, Trae Young. You may know that Joel Embiid led the NBA in free throws attempted per game this season. (In fact, Embiid was so ridiculously good at getting to the line that he finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in total attempts despite missing 21 regular-season games).
But the surprise addition to that free throw attempts list is the 6’ Lilliputian, Ice Trae. Young led the entire NBA in free throws made this regular season. He’s cerebral and has more tricks in his bag than a birthday magician. As ESPN’s Royce Young writes, he’s one of the league’s savviest innovators “who pushes the NBA rule book.”
There would be some irony in Sixers Prez Daryl Morey, perhaps watching Trae operate and feeling mildly appalled by Young’s manipulation of the rule book, since his former player, James Harden has done so much of it.
If I were Morey, I’d be thinking: “the league would sometimes let James do certain things for an entire regular season and then abruptly hit a switch and give him none of those calls in the postseason, sure would be nice if they sent Trae a similar message this series.”
Much of Trae’s game involves tricky maneuvering that might delight a litigious-minded loophole seeker while appalling a purist...an in-game moral equivalent of tanking for picks. We all know it’s allowed, but it’s not that fun to watch.
But morality aside, Young is going to do it and the Sixers defense must be prepared. Let’s look at three of Young’s favorite tricks, which helped one of the smallest dudes in the game lead the league in free throws.
Young Brake-Check: floaters
While “Young Brake-Check” may sound more like a grammy-winning hip-hop artist than a basketball play, it’s one you can be sure that players like Matisse Thybulle or Seth Curry will be focusing on this week.
“He gets the ball, calls for a screen and turns the corner, putting his defender on his hip as the help comes over to corral the drive. Once he feels his defender behind, he brake-checks, pulling up into a quick shot.
A little old thing called Newton’s first law of motion kicks in: A body in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by a force, i.e., the defender runs helplessly into Young’s back.
The whistle blows. The foul is called. Two free throws are given.
Young hit the Brooklyn Nets with the move on Dec. 30. Nets head coach Steve Nash was not a fan.
“That’s not basketball!” Nash yelled at the officials.”
Here, back in December, Brooklyn Nets coach, Steve Nash voicing his disgust for the move:
"That's not basketball" - Steve Nash— Talkin’ Nets (@TalkinNets) December 31, 2020
Trae Young was drawing cheap fouls and Steve Nash was tired of seeing it, not being able to do anything about it. Coach Nash had to have a word with this ref. Talk heavy coach. #WeGoHard - @Keith_McPherson pic.twitter.com/tMEbkSD6Ga
The chess match here will be intriguing because the Sixers perimeter defenders are highly skilled at applying pressure from behind a ball-handler. Matisse Thybulle in particular is a wizard at backpressure. He got the start for the injured Embiid in the Sixers close-out victory over Washington and Thybulle opened the game defending Bradley Beal.
Mathief wound up in some foul trouble, in part because Beal was prepared for Thybulle’s tendencies, and also because the Sixers got a tough whistle. But here’s what Thybulle loves to do:
He’s gotten so good at it, Tyrese Maxey has begun to pick up some tricks. Per Ky Carlin, Sixerswire:
“I haven’t watched film with him, but we talk,” Thybulle explained. “Especially just being on the same end of the bench together. It’s been fun being able to point out situations where he can make some of the plays that I’ve become notorious for making....
“I don’t remember which games, but if you go look, I think at least two of the last few games, he’s gotten like those rearview contests I get where guys I shoot floaters and you block it from behind, and he’s got like two of them,” Thybulle beamed. “I feel like a proud parent there on the bench just like rooting him on because it’s the same stuff that we talked about.”
Matisse Thybulle rearview block ---> Tyrese Maxey tough floater pic.twitter.com/wiiDxVszqg— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 1, 2021
Absolutely incredible block on Trae Young by Tyrese Maxey. pic.twitter.com/hADLwgetBs— Harrison Grimm (@Harrison_Grimm) January 12, 2021
So if the Sixers are going to chase Young over screens in order to take away his 3s then they’re going to be susceptible to this “brake-check” floater move. The Knicks in the prior series were mostly prepared for it.
Notice Derrick Rose aim for his side, not the center of his back when Young lifts for his floater:
Two misses from Trae Young in the third quarter. You can see he's trying to draw that contact from behind on these (especially on the first one) pic.twitter.com/X8EPW438bw— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) May 24, 2021
In games 2, 3, and 4 the Knicks held Young to a combined 13 total free throw attempts. But in games 1 and 5, Young lived at the line getting up 24 attempts. New York lost both of those.
Young Brake-check: four-point plays
This next one is a variation on the same theme. Young will frequently lead a bit of two-man action with a screener. Oftentimes, a player like Hawks’ big Clint Capela will fake a screen going one direction, slip it, then quickly reverse the action the other way.
[Time out: imagine the “Game of Zones” script if a Daryl Morey-led, largely Sam Hinkie-Process formed team braved a road to a title battling former Morey-Ball All-Stars Russell Westbrook, Clint Capela, James Harden, and Chris Paul? Here for it].
Per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann:
“And what really makes Young so important to the Hawks’ offense is his passing. Young ranks third in the league at 9.4 assists per game. He’s second in total assists in the restricted area (181) and seventh in assists on 3-pointers (308).
Most of those assists come out of the pick-and-roll. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Young has used 1,982 ball screens, most in the league. That’s 52.2 per game or 1.5 ball screens for every minute that he’s been on the floor.”
So with the defense so worried about Trae jacking a three or throwing a lob, they’ll find themselves zig-zagging over or slamming into screens.
That’s when Young will hit the brakes from behind the arc. Here, Reggie Bullock, a very experienced defender, even takes the brunt of it. Talk about frustrating. Bullock takes a big shot in the chin, as Young gets himself 3 cheap free throws the Garden crowd despises. You can even hear Mike Breen’s reluctant acceptance of this rule on the call:
Depending on the timing of the play, depending on the officiating crew, depending on the game situation this could be a four-point play if Young makes the triple, this could be three free throws, or simply a sideline out of bounds with a team foul if the ump says Trae wasn’t yet in a shooting motion when contact occurred.
But it’s something to watch out for.
Young appears to view any foul, anywhere, anytime, anyplace on the court as points. If you apply a little full-court pressure just to shave a few seconds off of Atlanta’s shot clock or reach for a steal 90’ away from the rim, Young may flail one of his little arms and pick up a cheap one:
Boom, now you’re over the limit or have to send a key player to the bench with foul trouble.
And transition isn’t just about dunks and threes, Young also knows a defender may be relatively happy to take fouls in “transition” so he looks to push the pace, even in borderline situations. Below, attacking a reasonably-if-not fully set D. Like so:
Above, Atlanta has no numbers, four of the Knicks were back on D, but with Nerlens Noel trailing the play, and without a shot-blocker in the paint, Reggie Bullock must cut off the drive. It looks like he gets there in time, but stars tend to get the benefit of the doubt if there’s any collision.
More free throws for Young, and more opportunities to inspire his wrath with derogatory chants about his hairline.
The Garden actually did the “Trae is balding” chant lmao pic.twitter.com/dnuoxbYvYe— ✈️ (@mldiffley) May 27, 2021
At the mercy of the officiating crews
Much of how this stuff plays out will depend on the officiating crew. Daryl Morey knows as well as anyone involved in the NBA that no matter how well you play all season long, no matter how much you prepare for a series, even if you have an MVP candidate (or two) one random officiating crew can have a bad day and wreck your year.
During game one of the 2019 Warriors-Rockets series, either the crew didn’t know about or didn’t like the critical “landing space” rule designed in order to protect shooters from rolling their ankle:
They missed the call all game long, and James Harden and Chris Paul had to try to not only make their 3s but avoid landing on a Golden State defender’s foot, which we all know (coughs Zaza Pachulia) can hurt a player and flip a series. The Warriors also famously benefitted from this when Pachulia injured Kawhi Leonard. It’s there for a very good reason but the refs just weren’t feeling that call that day.
So Philly must prepare for everything. And they have to hope they get an officiating crew who isn’t as hip to Trae’s bag of tricks. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if they had the big dude who led the league in foul shots per game either. Game one is on Sunday, there’s plenty of film work to do before then if they want to slow down the cunning Young.