Milwaukee Bucks: Analyzing three-point issues in the NBA Playoffs

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 21: (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 21: (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Though there were several reasons why the Milwaukee Bucks offense struggled in the Eastern Conference Finals, none was more important than their inability to hit catch-and-shoot threes.

What went wrong for the Milwaukee Bucks?

Bucks fans, and many others around the league, have spent the past week since their elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Toronto Raptors trying to figure out exactly what went wrong for the team.

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After racing out a commanding 2-0 lead, Milwaukee lost four straight games to Toronto. Instead of hosting Game 1 on Thursday night in Milwaukee, the Bucks spent it watching the Raptors beat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors by 118-109.

Several things went wrong for the Bucks, much of which will be highlighted in our roundtable discussion coming out on Sunday. However, one thing stood out above anything else: Milwaukee’s inability to hit catch-and-shoot threes.

One of the stories that emerged in the immediate aftermath of their Game 6 loss in Toronto was the Bucks inability to hit wide-open shots in the series. In particular, the Bucks were awful on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers.

At first glance, this stat could be dismissed as the result of a small sample size, and Toronto’s defensive scheme. However, a deeper dive into the numbers shows that Milwaukee had issues making these shots long before the Conference Finals.

In their 15 playoff games this year, the Bucks shot just 34.4 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and 34.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, while 26.8 of their 29.1 attempts per game on these shots came from three. Milwaukee’s catch-and-shoot percentages put them 12th in overall shooting percentage on those shots, and 10th on three-point percentage out of the 16 teams to play in the postseason.

They were considerably worse than the other conference finalists on those types of shots. By comparison, Toronto is shooting 35.8 percent on catch-and-shoot looks (29.5 attempts per game), and 35.2 percent from three (25.1 attempts per game) so far. Portland shot 38.2 percent overall (21.1 attempts) and 37.2 percent from three (18.3 attempts per game) on those shots. While Golden State is shooting 37.7 percent overall (28.6 attempts per game) and 35.7 percent from three (21.9 attempts per game) so far in the playoffs on catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Milwaukee’s issues predated their postseason run too. The Bucks were just 24th in the league during the regular season in shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers (35.9 percent on 29 attempts per game). They were even worse on catch-and-shoot threes. Milwaukee finished 25th in the league, shooting just 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes on 27.5 attempts per game.

Even taking their effective field goal percentage into consideration, which accounts for three pointers being worth more than two point shots, the Milwaukee Bucks were just the 18th ranked team (52.7 percent) on catch-and-shoot jumpers during the season. In the playoffs, they were 10th (50.2 percent).

So much of Milwaukee’s offense is reliant on their ability to space the floor effectively. All good teams need shooters to space the floor. However, with the Bucks star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, being most effective near the rim, the team is even more dependent on good spacing than just about any other team in the league.

Milwaukee tried to bring in guys who could help them to do this. They signed Brook Lopez in free agency last summer because of his ability to hit threes at the center position. Lopez shot 34.5 percent from deep for the Lakers in 2017-18, one of the better marks from a center that year. They also signed Ersan Ilyasova, another big who shot well from three in recent seasons (he shot over 36 percent in his previous two seasons).

The Milwaukee Bucks also brought in guys via trade to help them as well. They acquired George Hill, someone who had been great from three in several recent seasons, and the postseason. They also acquired Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline, another front court player who could stretch the floor.

Despite their efforts, however, Milwaukee saw inconsistent, at best, improvement in their floor-spacing. Almost all of it stemmed from their inability to hit catch-and-shoot threes.

During the regular season, many of their issues came from their starting five’s inability to make these shots. Eric Bledsoe shot 39 percent on catch-and-shoot threes on three attempts per game in his first season in Milwaukee in 2017-18. This season, however, he shot just 29.3 percent on 2.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game. Most of his three point makes came on pull-up jumpers (38.4 on 2.1 attempts per game) during the regular season.

Brook Lopez was hot-and-cold on catch-and-shoot threes. For every big game he had like this:

He’d have several where he struggled to make any threes. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that Lopez shot just 35.7 percent during the regular season on 5.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game. Lopez was certainly a solid option, but his percentages on those shots were by no means elite.

Milwaukee’s biggest surprise on catch-and-shoot jumpers during the regular season was Khris Middleton. Middleton, prior to this season, was one of the elite catch-and-shoot three point shot-makers in the league. In 2015-16, he shot 43.8 percent on 3.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game. In his injury-shortened 2016-17 season, he shot 47.1 percent on three catch-and-shoot threes per game. Even in 2017-18, with chaos going on everywhere else around him, Middleton shot 39 percent on 3.6 catch-and-shoot threes per game.

Things, however, were different during this regular season for Middleton. He struggled with his shot, as I detailed in this December piece, and during his second prolonged shooting slump in March. Most of his struggles stemmed from his inability to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers with the same consistency as past seasons.

Middleton shot 35.1 percent on three catch-and-shoot three attempts during the regular season, his career worst. Whether it was tied to a change in system, or just a poor year overall, Middleton’s inability to hit catch-and-shoot threes hurt the team.

The only real standouts during the regular season at catch-and-shoot threes were starting guard Malcolm Brogdon, and rotation wing Tony Snell. Brogdon turned into one of the elite open shot-makers in the league during the season. He made 47.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes on 2.8 attempts per game. Only Seth Curry (49.7 percent) and Joe Harris (48.1 percent) shot better while taking at least two catch-and-shoot three attempts per game during the regular season.

Tony Snell shot 40 percent on 2.6 catch-and-shoot threes per game during the season as well. No other Buck who played in at least half of their games shot better than 35.7 percent.

Despite these struggles, though, Milwaukee still ended the regular season with the league’s best record. They also finished with the fourth best offensive rating in the league at 113.5.

The playoffs, however, saw Milwaukee perform even worse on catch-and-shoot jumpers and threes.

The Milwaukee Bucks saw continued production out of Malcolm Brogdon, who shot 41.4 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and threes during the post-season. All of his attempts, 4.1 per game, were catch-and-shoot threes.

Milwaukee also got improved production on catch-and-shoot threes from George Hill and Khris Middleton. Hill made 45.5 percent of his 2.2 catch-and-shoot threes in the post-season after shooting just 31.1 percent on them during the regular season. Khris Middleton was back to his elite knock-down shooting from three too. Middleton shot a team best 46 percent on catch-and-shoot threes during the playoffs on 3.3 attempts per game.

Where Milwaukee lost their floor spacing, however, was from everyone else. Pat Connaughton was the only other Bucks player to shoot above 33 percent on catch-and-shoot threes during the post-season (35.7 percent) on at least two attempts per game.

Brook Lopez, after shooting 35.7 percent on 5.5 catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season, shot just 29 percent on 4.6 attempts per game during the playoffs. Ersan Ilyasova shot just 32.1 percent on 2.3 catch-and-shoot threes per game in the post-season. Nikola Mirotic, who was supposed to add even further shot-making, was just 29.2 percent on over five catch-and-shoot three point attempts in the playoffs.

No one, however, was worse than Eric Bledsoe. After already shooting below 30 percent during the regular season on catch-and-shoot threes, Bledsoe shot 25.7 percent on over 2.3 catch-and-shoot threes per game in the playoffs.

With Milwaukee’s shooters struggling to hit open shots at during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors were able to put their elite defensive wing, Pascal Siakam, on Milwaukee’s worst shooter (usually Bledsoe). This allowed Siakam to cheat toward the rim, enabling him to help double on Antetokounmpo any time he attempted to drive, to congest any potential driving or passing lanes, and to block shots whenever someone tried to get a shot at the rim.

Toronto’s bigs, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, were able to do the same thing. Because none of Milwaukee’s big men could hit open threes with any consistency, these former All-NBA defenders could help protect the rim and the paint because they didn’t have to worry about being beat from distance.

With most of their shooters struggling to hit open shots, especially from three, Giannis Antetokounmpo found a wall of defenders ready to greet him in the lane any time he attempted to drive. This forced him to either take on three defenders in the lane, pull up for a lower percentage jumper, or kick it out to a teammate.

The Raptors also made sure that the players who was left open and could shoot, like George Hill or Malcolm Brogdon, were on the other side of the arc from Antetokounmpo when he touched the ball. This forced Antetokounmpo, if he wanted to find the open guy, to make a difficult pass across the court. This is something he struggled with for the entire series. Most of the time, he either turned the ball over in this situation, or made an inaccurate pass that his teammates had to work for which took away the narrow window they had to make an open shot.

What all of this shows, is that much of Milwaukee’s break down in their half-court offense came from their inability to hit catch-and-shoot threes. During the lower stakes of the regular season, they were able to get away with several of their guys being mediocre or poor at making these shots. In the post-season, where the margins were finer, they were done in by the same guys failing to hit shots consistently. With their shooters unable to make open shots, Milwaukee’s floor spacing was almost non-existent, enabling Toronto to clog the paint at all costs to stop the Bucks greatest threat, Antetokounmpo, from scoring there.

Toronto stands as the perfect contrast to Milwaukee in this regard. The Raptors have made a concerted effort when building their roster to get elite catch-and-shoot three-point shot makers on their team. That has paid major dividends thus far in the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of their team and of the playoffs thus far, isn’t just an excellent shot-maker on his own created shots. He’s elite at hitting catch-and-shoot jumpers. Leonard made 40.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season on 2.5 attempts per game, and is 47.6 percent on 2.2 attempts in the playoffs.

Marc Gasol, who they acquired at the trade deadline in February, shot 37.1 percent on 3.3 catch-and-shoot threes per game during the season, and is shooting 39.1 percent on 3.6 attempts from there during the playoffs.

Danny Green, who Toronto acquired in the same trade as Leonard, shot 47.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season on 4.7 attempts. He’s struggled a bit in the post-season (33.3 percent on 4.3 attempts per game), but is still posting better numbers than many of Milwaukee’s equivalent shooters did in the playoffs.

Kyle Lowry, their starting point guard, shot 38.3 percent on 4.3 catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season. In the playoffs, he 36.6 percent on 3.7 attempts per game, much of which came in their series against the Bucks.

Serge Ibaka, their back-up center and power forward, is not an elite three point shot maker, but can hit his fair share of catch-and-shoot jumpers. Though he’s shooting just 27.5 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers during the playoffs, he made 44.4 percent of his 5.3 attempts per game during the season, including making 55.5 percent of his two pointers.

Fred VanVleet, their back-up guard, has caught fire in their past four playoffs games and is now shooting 42.5 percent on 2.1 catch-and-shoot threes in the playoffs overall. He too, was excellent during the regular season, hitting 41.2 percent on 2.9 catch-and-shoot threes per game.

Even Norman Powell, who always seems to save his best for the Bucks, is shooting 40.5 percent on 2.3 catch-and-shoot threes during the playoffs, and was 43.1 percent on 2.2 attempts per game during the season.

Having effective knock-down shooters at every position on the floor has prevented teams from effectively containing Kawhi Leonard by double-teaming him. This was on full-display in Milwaukee’s losses in Games five and six in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks were panicked by Kawhi Leonard’s ability to make difficult contested jumpers, especially long-range twos. To try and contain him, they often sent double teams to force Leonard to pass to one of his teammates. The Raptors stayed disciplined when this happened by continuing to move the ball until they found an open knock-down shooter. Because they had so many guys who could hit these open shots, they were able to punish Milwaukee’s defense for this, either by taking and making a jumper, or forcing a close out that opened up a lay-up for someone else. This was the difference in a really close series.

The Milwaukee Bucks would be wise in this upcoming off-season to follow the example of Toronto. We saw this season what Milwaukee can do when Giannis Antetokounmpo has ANY space to work inside. When Milwaukee could make jumpers to space the floor, they were virtually unstoppable. However, if they’re going to avoid a repeat of what happened in the Eastern Conference Finals, they’re going to need to acquire better catch-and-shoot players. Had they had them in this playoffs, they may have won the title.

Seeing how Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton are two of their best catch-and-shoot makers, Milwaukee may need to do everything they can to keep both of them this off-season. Replacing them, with little cap space to work with, would be extremely difficult.

The Bucks can certainly target their fair share of guys who can make catch-and-shoot jumpers too. If they can find the cap space to sign them, guys like Patrick Beverly, J.J. Redick, Danny Green, Terrence Ross, Rudy Gay and DeWayne Dedmon would help them. Others like Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, Danilo Gallinari, Robert Covington, and Josh Richardson may be available in a trade, but would require the team to figure out a package that works, something that may be difficult with so few players locked into contracts long-term.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: A very different kind of disappointment. dark

No matter how they do it, though, it’s clear Milwaukee needs more catch-and-shoot makers. Without them, the Bucks may find themselves coming up short in the playoffs once again.