Trae Young is no stranger to pressure from defenders, from his breakout freshman year at Oklahoma to his rookie year in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks. The move up to the NBA meant longer, quicker, stronger defenders coming at him on every possession. The Hawks weren’t the only team to take notice of his immense shooting and passing prowess in college, as he’s received the superstar treatment from Day One in the league. Hard traps and hedges are a regular feature of opponents’ defensive game plans against the rookie point guard and while he’s certainly had some turnover issues through his first few months running the show for Atlanta, Young has handled the pressure with grace and poise, waiting patiently for openings to appear and capitalizing on them before they close again.
Against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, Young saw a bit of a different look – Kris Dunn, Shaquille Harrison, and Ryan Arcidiacano were shadowing him up the floor whether he had the ball or not. If Young gave up the ball in the half-court, they were going to make sure that he had to work to get it back. It’s not the first time Young has seen that sort of off-ball pressure and it certainly won’t be the last.
From Chicago’s point of view, two of those three guards are high-level defenders with the length and athleticism to bother Young all over the court and throw the Hawks off of their normal routine on an offensive possession. With so much of Atlanta’s offense running through Young’s hands, it makes sense for the Bulls to deny him the opportunity to hurt them as much as possible. On certain possessions, it worked beautifully, clogging up what the Hawks wanted to do, especially because Kevin Huerter missed the game through injury and Lloyd Pierce didn’t go to Jeremy Lin at the other guard spot in the first half.
How Atlanta countered that pressure became of utmost importance throughout the contest. Would Young continue to fight on the perimeter to find open space and tire himself out? Would they go away from him altogether, content to play 4-on-4 elsewhere with Young and his defender not involved in the action? Or would they find a pressure release to get Young the ball despite the pressure?
The answer, as it usually is with these things, was a combination of the three, with Young doing his best to get open, other players taking a more active role in handling the ball, and our particular focus in this article: ‘Blind Pig’ action to break Chicago’s pressure and get Young the ball on the way to the rim.
Blind Pig is a concept that predates Young himself, with uses going back to the mid-90s Bulls and their Triangle offense. It was a late-game staple of Phil Jackson’s throughout his time in charge in Chicago and Los Angeles, where Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant faced similar defensive pressure to Young (I promise that will be the last time I ever compare Young to either Jordan or Bryant, unless his career goes very, very differently from the path it’s currently on).
The essence of Blind Pig is to use a third player to help get Young the ball, rather than relying on a Point-A-to-Point-B pass from one wing to the other. When Arcidiacano pressures Young and DeAndre’ Bembry can’t get the ball to him, watch how Dewayne Dedmon flashes to the elbow and hands the ball to Young cutting toward the rim:
Arcidiacano’s positioning makes it impossible for him to both deny the pass from Bembry and sufficiently defend the hand-off action from Dedmon to Young. The result is a switch, which the Hawks punished throughout the game, especially when Arcidiacano was involved, and another Dedmon bucket.
Young wasn’t the only one to see that level of off-ball pressure against Chicago. When Lin entered the game in relief, the Bulls rolled out the same defensive strategy, especially in the first half. Watch below how Atlanta works the Blind Pig action to get Lin a wide-open layup:
Blind Pig can flow into other actions, as there are hundreds of possible set plays based around a big man holding the ball at the elbow. Atlanta’s massive changes to the coaching staff before the season have led to adjustments all over the place, but a lot of the key tenets of what Mike Budenholzer built with the Hawks have survived.
Most notably, the players’ ability to read and react, rather than running a single set play, has made the team that much more difficult to stop over the course of their latest string of good performances. Young isn’t open on the hand-off from Dedmon in the clip below, but Atlanta immediately flows into another action, which ends up in an open three for John Collins:
Young, after not receiving the ball from Dedmon, exits out to the right corner, while Bembry lifts out of that corner to get the ball from Dedmon himself. From there, it’s a two-man game with Bembry and Dedmon working toward the rim and the rest of the team spacing the floor. Robin Lopez sinks toward the paint and Bembry is able to hit a wide-open Collins for his first three-pointer of the night.
Blind Pig gives the Hawks a great outlet for getting their point guards the ball in a roundabout way when they’re being heavily pressured in the half-court offense. A non-traditional backdoor cut will always bring defenders toward the paint, which makes it easier to find shooters on the perimeter, but if there’s no defense in the middle, it can turn into a layup line for Atlanta.
A layup line was exactly what most of the game ended up being against the Bulls, who struggled mightily to defend just about everything the Hawks threw at them, but the experience Atlanta got in these situations will help them the next time they’re facing a more competent defensive team that pressures up on Young and Lin on the perimeter.