Since the start of the new decade, nothing was slowing down Trae Young.
He was averaging 35 points, 10 assists and was shooting nearly 42 percent from three on a ridiculous 10.8 attempts per game. Two days before coming into Capital One Arena, Young recorded his first 40-point triple-double against the Rockets.
But on Friday night, Washingon contained the second-year phenom. He scored 19 points, went 7-20 from the floor and missed all seven of his threes, which is tied for the second-most 3-pointers attempted without a make in a game in his career.
Leading the effort on defense was Gary Payton II. Ever since the Wizards signed him using a hardship exception, Payton has probably been the team's best perimeter defender. And they've noticed.
"I thought [Payton] was active from the start," Scott Brooks said. "He's not good, he's a great defensive player and he's a great pick up by Tommy [Sheppard] and the staff."
Payton has great size and length for defending guards like Young. He's quick enough to keep smaller guards in front of him and strong enough to make them uncomfortable on their drives. When you can't get by your defender, players start to jack up contested jumpers.
Young's different though. He'll try to burn you from three and then capitalize on his defender playing up to get easier driving lanes. Payton knew this was coming, so he made sure to force Young to drive into the paint where Ian Mahinmi was waiting for him.
"Just make it tough for him, cut his water off early," Payton said. "Most of his shots come from three, that's how he gets going. We just try to limit his threes, make him take deep threes that are contested."
The Wizards aren't exactly the team to slow great scorers down, but for some reason, they've always guarded Young well. They held him to 12 points per game and sub-30 percent shooting in four meetings last year, which were by far his worst averages against any team as a rookie.
But Atlanta's smart. They're not going to force their best player to beat his man off the bounce every trip down. That's what screens are for.
Brooks may not have the quickest bigs in the league, but he asked Mahinmi and Anzejs Pasecniks to play up when their man went to screen for Young.
"I thought the bigs did a good job on being up in our screens," he said. "You can't guard [Young] one-on-one when the big sets screens, and our bigs did a good job up to the touch, creating a bit of a scrum there so he had to see over a bigger player."
This forced Young to get rid of the ball and rely on the likes of Kevin Huerter and rookies De'Andre Walker and Cam Reddish to knock down shots. That's been the Hawks' issue all year, and that's why they're looking at trading for more established talent already.
What the Wizards did against Young wasn't earth-shattering. Most teams that play the Hawks deploy the same strategy. Washington's execution was the difference, and teams who buy in to a culture are often the groups that execute at the highest level.
The Wizards may not be there yet, but these are the small steps every team must make when building a contender. There are no shortcuts.
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