The first topic posed to Bucks coach Jim Boylan after Sunday’s win over the Magic was a predictable one: Monta Ellis’ dazzling fourth quarter performance.
Boylan, who was visibly irritated by his team’s performance, obliged and talked about Ellis’ feat — for one sentence.
“Yeah, Monta was pretty amazing there in the fourth quarter.”
And then, without any further prompting or questions, Boylan proceeded to go into a two-minute tangent about effort.
“Orlando played great. They made a lot of shots. I’m happy that we won the game, but I’m really concerned with the way we’re playing right now – it’s not good enough. We need to play better. We need to be a better team. Right now, we’re not a very good team. You can’t rely on scoring 45 points in the fourth quarter to pull a game out at home.
Like we talked about before, you have the noon game and wonder how guys are going to be. Well, [the Magic] were OK. They were fine, so there’s no excuse for us to play the way we played. That falls on me. That falls on the players.
We want to throw the word ‘playoffs’ around very easily here, and the players are hearing it. First of all, we’re not in the playoffs. We’re not there yet, and we have to get there. The way we’re playing right now, we’re not good enough. We need to look at ourselves and figure out what we need to do and get it done. It’s all about our effort and how we approach the game and how we come out and all the little things – all the intensity things that you need to do in order to be a good team. In this league, every night you’re going to play against very good players. No matter what team they’re on – no matter how many wins they have, no matter how many losses they have – the players are good. If you play a casual kind of game, without the intensity that’s necessary to win, you’re going to lose. Recently, that’s how we’ve been playing. We’re not doing anything extra, and we need to start doing that.”
In particular, Boylan is frustrated with his team’s recent lack of engagement on defense.
“The defensive end is where the problems are. Period. Period. We don’t play any defense. We’re not committed to it. We don’t play hard enough. Defense is one effort. Defense is a second effort. Defense is a third effort. Defense is a fourth effort. And then defense is a rebound. We give one effort, maybe two, and that’s about it. Teams take advantage of it, and then teams get in a rhythm.”
The Bucks have held opponents under 100 just once in the past 10 games, allowing an average of 108.9 points per game. Although that number is slightly skewed, as Milwaukee played in two overtime games during that stretch, Boylan’s concern is very legitimate.
As a whole, the Bucks have been a very average defensive team this season. According to NBA.com/Stats (h/t Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball and Steven von Horn of Brew Hoop), Milwaukee’s defensive rating — points allowed per 100 possessions — is 102.1, ranking 11th in the NBA. Since the Bucks and former head coach Scott Skiles parted ways, however, the defense has started to deteriorate. In the 32 games prior to Skiles’ exit, Milwaukee’s defensive rating was 100.6 — good for 10th in the NBA. In the 33 games since, they have a defensive rating of 103.4 — 15th in the league during that span. It’s certainly possible that, despite the fact Boylan runs a similar system, the players are starting to relax a little more on defense without the presence of Skiles’ famously strict mandate on that end of the court.
Another culprit is the starting backcourt’s insistence on gambling for steals. Although it can lead to a few forced turnovers every game, it leaves Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings extremely susceptible on the perimeter, as opposing guards can — and do — beat them of the dribble with ease. Boylan hinted at this issue after the game.
“[Giving up points in the paint is] a product of everything…Our perimeter guys are just letting people drive right by them — relying on Larry [Sanders], Ersan [Ilyasova], Ekpe [Udoh] and others to try to clean up the mess. So, we have to try and get better as an individual defensive team, take a little pride in the man we’re guarding and try to shut him down, not make any excuses and just kind of ‘man up’ and do it.”
Part of the problem might be the mindset of Milwaukee’s starting guards. At Media Day in November, Ellis and Jennings both noted the luxury of having shot-blocking big men as a safety net.
Ellis: “When it comes to the defensive end, the only thing we have to do is hold our man to four or five dribbles, and if they go to the basket, we have our big guys back there to wipe them out. As long as we don’t open the door for them to go all the way to the basket and get our big men in foul trouble, that’s the biggest thing we need to do.”
Jennings: “Everybody doesn’t want [the starting backcourt] to work. Everybody thinks it can’t work. [Ellis and I] came to an agreement that we’ll sacrifice whatever just to win. Now that we have so much length back there, people can’t talk about our size and that it won’t be able to work, because we have damn near three 6’10” guys back there, and they can block anyone’s shot.”
If the Bucks want to become a stingier defensive force, Jennings and Ellis will have to shed the mindset that they can gamble and offer little perimeter resistance because Sanders and Udoh will always be there to bail them out. They won’t be.
It also doesn’t help that the Bucks’ two key perimeter bench players, J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy, lack the lateral quickness to stay with faster guards and forwards Furthermore, it’s probably not a coincidence that the team defense has slipped considerably since Luc Mbah a Moute — Milwaukee’s best perimeter defender — started battling a turf toe injury last week, though Marquis Daniels has helped fill the void.
The final effort required on defense, as Boylan alluded to above, is securing the rebound. The problem is, of course, that the Bucks have been a poor rebounding team for the past two seasons. They rank 28th in defensive rebounding percentage in the NBA, controlling only 71.0 percent of all available defensive rebounds (league average is 73.4 percent). The Bucks were an equally poor defensive rebounding team last year, ranking 25th (70.9 DRB%) in the NBA.
With such a prolonged rebounding deficiency, it’s unlikely that the Bucks will be able to vastly improve in this category for the remainder of the season. Aside from Sanders, whose 25.8 DRB% places him among the elite, and Samuel Dalembert, the Bucks are simply overwhelmed on the glass.
It seems, however, that Boylan’s message is at least getting through to his players. After the Magic game, Sanders echoed some of his coach’s thoughts.
“We didn’t really have the energy of a playoff team today. We knew that. We came out a little differently in the second half. The first half, if you do that in the playoffs, you could be down a tremendous amount.”
While the Bucks may have had more energy on offense in the second half, there wasn’t a significant bump in defensive effort. The Magic, whose offensive rating of 102.4 ranks 25th in the NBA, followed their 54-point first half with 55 points after intermission. The Bucks were simply forced to rely on an aberrational fourth quarter explosion, which did little to satisfy Boylan. He vowed to address the problem immediately.
“We’re going to get in the gym [Monday] and have a good, hard defensive practice. We’ll talk about guys doing what they’re supposed to do. I have confidence in my guys. I have faith in my guys. I know they want do well. I know they want to play well. We just need to find a way to turn it up a little bit.”
There’s no better time for the Bucks to start shoring up the defense than tomorrow, when Milwaukee welcomes in a very capable and explosive offensive team, the Portland Trail Blazers.
“If we are a playoff team, we need to act and play a certain way,” said Boylan, concluding his press conference.