trae young knicks
Mandatory Credit: Seth Wenig/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Trae Young ran roughshod over the New York Knicks in Game 1 on Sunday night. What adjustments need to be made?

Danny Small

Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs didn’t go as planned for the New York Knicks. Julius Randle laid an egg while Trae Young led his Atlanta Hawks to a victory with a cold-blooded bucket in the final seconds. The disparity between the best player on each team was the biggest difference in the game.

Young dropped 32 points and 13 assists in Game 1 with nine makes on nine free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter. His ability to get downhill in the pick-and-roll was a glaring issue for the Knicks and one that needs to be resolved before Game 2. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the Knicks can adjust to what we saw on Sunday night.

Scheme Changes

First things first, let’s talk about the scheme the Knicks employed in this game — drop coverage. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gave heavy preference to drop coverage during the regular season. As a result, it’s not surprising to see the Knicks use this as their go-to scheme in the playoffs.

The Knicks have the guard go over the top of the screen and trail Young into the lane. The big man drops into the lane to protect the paint and deter the lob to Clint Capela.

When it works, Young is forced to take tough floaters in the lane. When it doesn’t, he’s able to get to the rim and draw fouls.

There is a 0% chance the Knicks abandon drop coverage completely because of one game. This is what they have done all year defensively and Thibs isn’t one to overreact.

Instead, look for the Knicks to make subtle changes to the scheme in an effort to throw Young off balance. This could be sending the guard underneath on screens from time to time, or using the big man aggressively on the hedge, or even straight-up blitzing Young with a double team off the screen.

Again, sprinkling these changeups in could be a good way to make sure that Young doesn’t get comfortable in time for the fourth quarter.

Hawks coach Nate McMillan did a bang-up job with mixing up the coverages and schemes to keep the Knicks guessing. Of course, New York doesn’t have anyone who can run the pick-and-roll like Young (and they don’t run it nearly as much as Atlanta). Still, that type of mixing and matching can be enough to steal a few possessions.

Personnel Change

By now, most Knicks fans have an opinion on Elfrid Payton one way or another. There is no need to dig too deep into the film to see that he is a clear net-negative for the Knicks. Even if he’s only playing a handful of minutes each game, those are minutes when the Knicks are at a distinct disadvantage.

The obvious move would be to start Derrick Rose in his place and have Alec Burks as the lead guard on the second unit. If Thibs wants to keep Rose and Burks as his first guards off the bench, he has another card he can play.

Yeah, if you have been reading my work long enough you know exactly what I’m about to type — Frank Ntilikina.

Sure, he wasn’t perfect on the Young game-winner, but the fact that he was on the floor says a lot in itself. Thibodeau trusts Ntilikina to make the right play at the most crucial time in the game. Why not trust him to take those minutes away from Payton?

Ntilikina is even longer than Payton and he’s excellent on or off the ball. He could take the Young assignment outright or act as a freelancer who can add a little extra rim protection from the wing.

Payton is offering nothing in his minutes right now. At least Ntilikina might be able to give Young a different look for a few minutes.

Attack Young on Offense

This is a tried-and-true method of attacking smaller guards. Don’t give him a moment’s rest on the defensive end. The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James would try and isolate the mismatch on Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals for four straight years for God’s sakes.

Young worked his ass off on defense in Game 1 and he was rewarded for it. The Knicks were not able to punish him on the mismatch very often. Basically, anytime Randle or RJ Barrett is matched up with Young it should turn into a post-up.

It’s important for the Knicks to wear Young down by attacking him non-stop. This is easier said than done, but it’s one of the minor adjustments the Knicks can make to help even this series at one game apiece.

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