The Long Two: NBA’s young guards are proving themselves in the playoffs

Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

This week on The Long Two: Early returns on Devin Booker, Trae Young, and Ja Morant in the playoffs. Plus, how Luka Dončić is picking the Clippers apart.

NBA players establish reputations over hundreds, if not thousands, of regular-season repetitions, but the playoffs are where those reputations are stress-tested. We may have a good idea of what a player does well, but can’t know for sure until it sustains through a playoff run or two. A pet shot might work consistently through the slog of a regular season, but can it be an effective weapon against dialed-in, predatory defenses? Intuitive reads might come easily against base defensive coverages, but what about when opponents are constantly adjusting to take away a playmaker’s preferred passes? At the highest levels of the sport, it’s not enough to be good; you must be undeniable.

Two first-round games are hardly a definitive sample size, but the opening weekend of the playoffs offered a glimpse at how three of the NBA’s most talented young guards might fare in the postseason crucible.

What have we seen from Devin Booker, Ja Morant and Trae Young in their first playoff experience?

Devin Booker

With Chris Paul limited to one functional arm and backup point guard Cam Payne ejected midway through the second half, it was Booker’s resilient scoring and steady operating that kept Phoenix’s offense afloat in the Suns Game 1 win over the Lakers. In a game featuring at least three future Hall-of-Famers, the best player on the floor was a first-time playoff participant, fearlessly grabbing the reins in the game’s most crucial moments.

More than his strong statistical production (34 points and 8 assists on 13-of-26 shooting), Booker’s offensive command rose to the fore against one of the league’s best defenses. Not once did he look fazed by L.A.’s traps, ball-denials, and lurking help defenders, nor did he need to force his way into the action to have an imprint. When the Lakers rushed multiple defenders at him to force the ball out of his hands, Booker patiently found an outlet and allowed the Suns to play four-on-three; when they denied him the ball, he found clever ways to re-involve himself in the play; and when Phoenix needed to close the game out down the stretch, Booker came through with the most important shots of his career.

He didn’t settle into quite the same flow in Game 2 (31 points, 3 assists, 4 turnovers), when the Lakers moved more cohesively on defense and shifted more creative burden onto Booker’s shoulders. With Paul and Jae Crowder limited by injury and foul trouble, respectively, Booker didn’t have the same pressure-release options at his disposal, which allowed L.A. to squeeze him into tighter areas of the floor. That he could still work his way into an efficient scoring night (thanks largely to 17 free-throw attempts) despite such impediments is a testament to his consistency, but sustaining the kinds of performances Booker delivered in Game 1 will be the next step in the development of a player who has already proven himself a threat against the most formidable of competition.

Trae Young

Unlike Booker, whose size, strength, and offensive versatility were almost certain to translate in the postseason, Young entered the playoffs as more of an unknown. His lack of size prevents him from easily shooting over defenders, and his reliance on drawing fouls could, in theory, make his game less conducive to playoff success. Yet Young looked in full control of Atlanta’s offense against the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense, routinely breaking the paint to open up floaters, lobs, and kick-out passes on his way to 32 points, 10 assists and just 2 turnovers.

Young followed that up with another consummate performance in a Game 2 loss, and again New York struggled to contain his dribble penetration and pull-up shooting (though Young did turn the ball over five times). Few players in the NBA are as creative or adept at generating easy offense as Young, who reads defenses like a veteran and makes sound decisions without predetermining them. As Kevin O’Connor noted earlier this week, Young found three different options out of the same pick-and-roll set late in Game 1, each the correct read based on how the Knicks chose to contain his drive:

Tom Thibodeau might consider blitzing Young in the pick-and-roll more often in Game 3. Young hasn’t shown quite the willingness to get rid of the ball against traps that some of the league’s other pull-up threats have, and running extra bodies at him could help force turnovers, get the ball out of Young’s hands, and keep him from so easily collapsing the Knicks’ defense. The jury is still out on how Young’s notoriously poor defense will hold up against playoff opponents; New York eschewed plenty of opportunities to target him in isolation, and fiercer opponents will be less forgiving if the Hawks survive  the first round. The early returns on Young as a playoff player, however, are that the offensive gains are well worth whatever defensive tradeoff may be coming.

Ja Morant

After closing out the Warriors in the second play-in game with an onslaught of hard drives and soft floaters, Morant proceeded to carve up the Jazz’s defense as the Grizzlies earned a 1-1 split in Utah. Morant may not bend defenses with the threat of his pull-up jumper like Young and Booker do, but his speed, physicality, and ferocity with a live dribble has made him equally difficult to contain this postseason. It’s difficult enough to slow down a crafty guard capable of reading and manipulating defenses on the fly, but that becomes a nearly impossible task when that guard is also one of the most explosive athletes in the NBA.

The Jazz largely stuck to their usual defensive principles in Game 1, chasing Memphis’ ball-handlers over ball screens and into Rudy Gobert in the paint. Morant used those situations as an opportunity to put his defender on his back and work comfortably in the space between the 3-point line and the rim:

Morant kept coming in Game 2 with a career-high 47 points, using both pick-and-roll craft and isolation burst to scorch Utah at the point of attack and apply constant pressure to the rim. He showed no hesitance challenging presumptive Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, and while Gobert stifled several of his drives, Morant’s ability to get downhill at will was the lifeblood of an efficient Grizzlies offense. His poor 3-point shooting (2-of-8 in the series, 30 percent on the season) is a clear offensive weakness, which could become more prohibitive as the first round wears on. Ducking under screens and daring Morant to shoot is a better alternative to letting him waltz into the paint, and the Jazz may lean into that strategy more often in Game 3. Getting a real handle on him, however, may require a kind of a structural reorientation from Utah that few 21-year-olds demand.

The Clippers have no answers for Luka

Luka Dončić entered this year’s playoffs having already legitimized his ascent to superstardom. Last postseason, Dončić had one of the most productive playoff series by a 21-year-old in NBA history in a first-round exit against the Clippers, and this year he’s given the same opponent fits as the Mavericks have jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Dallas’ offense has produced an astonishing 129.7 points per 100 possessions through its first two playoff games, and Tuesday night’s eruption reached a point of sheer absurdity:

Shots like that — as well as Dallas hitting nearly 54 percent of its 3-pointers — likely aren’t sustainable for a full series, but the manner in which Dallas has generated most of its shots is.

Despite a lack of vertical or straight-line burst, Dončić’s size, handle, and deceptiveness make him a master at creating space and getting a step on his defender, and his otherworldly passing allows him to fillet opponents in the pick-and-roll. Los Angeles tried every conceivable pick-and-roll coverage against Dončić in Games 1 and 2, and he picked each one apart as easily as the last (it didn’t help matters that the Clippers often didn’t seem to be on the same page defensively).

Against a conventional drop coverage, he gains easy paint access and either gets to the rim, lobs the ball to the roll man, or finds a popping big for 3. Bring your center to the level of the screen, and the 6-foot-8 Dončić throws over the top of the defense to a roll man or shooter. Go under the pick, and Dončić steps into open triples. Trap him, and the Mavericks play four-on-three. Switch, and Dončić can order Patrick Beverley or Ivica Zubać off the menu and go to work:

Even against perfectly executed hedge-and-recover sequences, Dončić can still nail tough shots over like-sized defenders:

Clearly, there are no right answers against Dončić; any scheme used against him mandates some sort of concession from a defense. Switching may be the least of all evils, and nearly anything would be preferable to trapping and allowing Dallas to play four-on-three against what has thus far been an undisciplined defense. But when this offense is firing on all cylinders, scheme ceases to matter, and the carnage all feels the same.

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