Milwaukee Bucks: Diving deep into their ongoing defensive innovation

Mar 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA (Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports)
Mar 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA (Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports) /

It’s safe to say the Milwaukee Bucks started off the second half of their season on the right note Thursday night.

Their 134-101 throttling of the New York Knicks proved to be one of their most dominant victories of their 2020-21 season so far and a throwback to the kind of overwhelming results all Bucks fans got used to over the last two regular seasons.

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While their offensive explosion was headlined by seven Bucks players scoring in double figures, it was on the defensive side of the ball where things were much more interesting for Milwaukee.

After all, the Bucks put in one of their most stifling defensive performances in their first game back from the All-Star game. Per, the Bucks put in a 100.0 defensive rating against the Knicks, the sixth-best mark they’ve put in for a single game this season.

Of course, when you’re playing a challenged Knicks offense that ranks 23rd in offensive efficiency this season, the scales are tilted in the Bucks’ favor to put forth a strong defensive performance. Yet the brilliance about the Bucks’ defensive performance was the manner in which they accomplished such complete showing on that side of the ball.

As they have increasingly done so far this season, Milwaukee was switching actions extensively throughout the game, all of which ground down the Knicks’ attack into one-on-one situations that increasingly went nowhere. Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle saw a wall of Bucks defenders anytime he touched the paint, all of which led him to finishing with a season-low seven points on 3-of-12 shooting and five turnovers.

And Bucks center Brook Lopez reminded all of us why he was voted last year’s All-Defensive second team by compiling a season-high five blocks. That goes for head coach Mike Budenholzer as well who remarked on Lopez’ watermark performance to Jim Owczarski to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

"“I thought defensively he was really special,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said of Lopez. “Did a lot of good things, a lot of different situations whether it’s just individual defense on his guy, playing pick-and-roll defense at the rim, help side. I do, I felt like he was sharp tonight. At the break you’re never sure how you’re going to come out of it but a lot of good stuff from Brook tonight coming out of the break, really the whole team.”"

The Milwaukee Bucks have had their growing pains on the defensive end this season.

Make no mistake, the Bucks’ defensive performance versus the Knicks was among the most suffocating outings they’ve had all year. New York shot 6-of-16 on shots taken within the restricted area and the Bucks allowed 30 opposing paint points, matching their second-fewest total of the season.

Defensive possessions like this one midway through the fourth quarter and with the game well in hand showed just how much of a well-oiled machine the Bucks were defensively, even without their starters on the floor.

Even with the opponent in mind, the fact that the Bucks put together one of their best defensive showings in the first game after the All-Star break was far from a surprise. Having the necessary practice time it takes to preach communication and getting down the tendencies and habits needed for switching is key for a team like the Bucks, especially in a season such as this one.

Incorporating more switching and defensive versatility has been the growing theme of the Bucks’ season as has been embracing the ups and downs of regular season as a whole. It hasn’t all been an easy process for Bucks players to get down as we’ve seen them all have to learn different defensive coverages all while integrating numerous additions on the fly.

As that’s gone on, Milwaukee had still been subject to the same 3-point shooting onslaughts they’ve let up to their opponents that has been at the center of their defensive slide this season. And the few holdovers that remain on the Bucks’ roster have had to shed their previous defensive instincts that were ingrained upon Budenholzer’s arrival nearly three years ago.

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While it’s been messy at times, it’s nights like the Bucks put forth against the Knicks that show the potential of the kind of defensive unit they can when it matters most. And while they look for that elusive defensive specialist as a midseason reinforcement, it’s the reps they continue to accumulate that will prove to increase the Bucks’ ongoing defensive adaptability.