The Milwaukee Bucks’ defensive scheme is designed to surrender more 3-pointers than most, which has caused some problems lately. But a few small tweaks within the detail of their defense could help to change that.
Attempting to critique the Milwaukee Bucks can be a pretty daunting task.
They have a rather spotless system in place on both ends of the floor, but perhaps more uniquely on defense (when lined up next to the rest of the league). Despite analytics inspiring NBA defenses to focus their attention at the 3-point line, which has now commonly been dubbed as the most efficient shot in basketball by almost all basketball enthusiasts, the Bucks let up more threes than almost any other team in the NBA, barring the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors.
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Rather, Milwaukee focuses their attention on the only other shot that’s comparably, or perhaps more efficient than a shot from downtown: a look down in the trenches, directly at the basket.
They do this by running a drop coverage on ball screens (where the on-ball defender fights over the screen and the screen defender drops deep inside to defend the rim). On top of that, they often have their perimeter defenders fade far off their man to create an elaborate line of defense inside, making it near-impossible to score at the rim efficiently. Because of this, they’re seemingly sacrificing easier 3-point attempts for tougher 2-point attempts.
To some this might seem foolish, but the proof is in the pudding for Milwaukee. The Bucks hold the best defensive rating in the NBA by a convincing margin, and per FiveThirtyEight, they have one of the most effective defenses of all-time. Why they are so good at what they do shouldn’t be too much of a secret. They arguably have the league’s best rim protecting duo in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, on top of two of the best trail guard defenders in Eric Bledsoe and Donte DiVincenzo.
Combine those four with another rim protecting presence Robin Lopez, as well as great high-energy defender such as Wesley Mathews, and you have a premier defensive lineup built to do what Milwaukee’s defense does best: hound opponents inside the paint. But, as was hinted at before, this historical defense does have an Achilles heel, and that is the 3-point shot.
The 3-point shot is a necessary evil for the Bucks and their defense. Again, they do what they do so well at the expense of occasionally letting up open looks from deep. It’s a bet they are willing to take, and most times it works out for them…until it doesn’t. When opposing teams get hot from downtown they can poke a hole in Milwaukee’s stifling defense because those open looks from three will always be there in abundance.
They saw that last year in the playoffs when Fred VanVleet helped end their NBA Finals hopes by essentially making every single 3-point look he got from Game 4 onward. They also saw that in the early-going of what was looking to be an ugly turnout against the Heat on August 6, when Miami made 13 threes in the first half and made 45.7 percent of their total 47 threes.
Now, the Bucks still came away with the very decisive victory, but the Heat were without important contributors in Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Their 3-point shooting is what really made it a game to begin with, and when they were clicking it was frustrating.
But at times, that’s the story of being a Bucks fan; the necessary evil of choosing to root for Milwaukee (which to be fair, is generally a very enjoyable experience). But that’s not to suggest there isn’t anything they can do about it. In fact, they should be to quell the 3-point barrages without going too far away from their beloved defensive scheme.
For starters, let’s take a look at an example of the aforementioned drop coverage Milwaukee runs so excellently. Notice how little help is required from their perimeter defenders:
Bledsoe and Giannis execute perfect drop coverage on this possession. Bledsoe never gives up after going over the screen and gives a dropping Giannis enough clearance to safely fade into the restricted area. Kendrick Nunn then has to finish through two great shot-disrupting players and misses on the attempt. Bledsoe and Giannis are one of the best drop coverage duos in the league, arguably only second to Bledsoe and Brook, and require little help to stop most possessions.
This allows Mathews to stay locked in on Duncan Robinson and also allows Khris Middleton to do the same with Jae Crowder. All kick out options are locked down besides Kelly Olynyk, but Brook is justified in leaving that opportunity in order to secure the box out. The key lies with Mathews (who stays put on one of the best shooters in basketball) and Middleton (who stays put on the much easier-to-make kick out option). This is Milwaukee’s best-case defensive possession.
Unfortunately this doesn’t happen every possession for the Bucks and it especially hasn’t happened every time in the bubble. Perimeter defenders have been collapsing too deep on drives far too often – and in some cases collapsing isn’t even a necessity – and the team has had to pay for that in recent games. Take this possession as an example:
This possession is awfully similar to the first clip. Bledsoe and Giannis are once again defending the pick and roll via drop coverage, and are once again executing it to perfection. The difference here lies in the perimeter defender sitting above the break, who is Pat Connaughton under this circumstance. He fades off Solomon Hill dramatically here, seemingly in order to help halt Nunn out of the pick and roll, but this only makes life easier for Nunn as he’s able to quickly kick it out to the wide-open Hill for the three.
One could argue that there was no need for Connaughton to collapse on this possession. Giannis and Bledsoe are more than capable of covering the action on their own, as was shown by the first clip above. Instead, he made his close-out assignment much harder than it initially had to be. He could have avoided this by adjusting his positioning to near the top of the free throw circle. That way he could still interrupt Nunn in the pick and roll while still managing to cover Hill up top.
It’s subtle, but it’s key. Championships are won by paying attention to those subtleties, which is something the Bucks have been doing in the bubble thus far. Here’s another example:
Unlike the previous example, this clip focuses in on a possession not involving the pick and roll. But nevertheless, Milwaukee still finds themselves in the same problem. Here Connaughton is stuck in an obvious mismatch with Bam Adebayo; forcing Giannis to forgivably leave his assignment. Miami oddly counters this by having two players sit above the break, theoretically allowing Marvin Williams to cover both players. Unfortunately, like Connaughton in the previous clip, Marvin over-commits inside and instead leaves both players open.
Adebayo reads this and kicks it out to Crowder for the unnecessarily open look. The Bucks got saved by the miss, but the shot arguably shouldn’t have been an option to begin with. By fading inside less, more-so around the top of the free throw circle, this could have been prevented.
Even with just slight adjustments like that – not having perimeter defenders collapse inside when there’s no need to – the Bucks could negate their 3-point defensive problems. This includes defenders collapsing from the corner as well, which happens less frequently but still enough to make note of. Understandably this all is apart of Milwaukee’s M.O. but when the shots are falling, especially in the playoffs, staying true to the perimeter might not be a bad idea.
Earlier the term “necessary evil” was used to describe the 3-pointers that the Bucks sacrifice for better protection inside. But the clipped examples above have been leaked throughout every game in the bubble thus far. These are not necessary looks; Milwaukee can afford to cover these looks without dwindling too far away from what makes their defense so special.
That has been a defining subplot for the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble and will remain one in the playoffs if adjustments are not made.