Milwaukee Bucks: Can defensive adaptability come with improved results?

So much of the Milwaukee Bucks‘ 2020-21 season has been been defined by taking a drastically different approach under head coach Mike Budenholzer.

The last two seasons saw the Bucks build a clear defensive identity that catapulted them to the top of the NBA, only for it to come crumbling in each of their last two playoff runs. So far this season, the Bucks have traded their elite defensive status in exchange for more variety from a tactical standpoint that still sees them ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com/stats.

It’s safe to say all of that wasn’t seen in their 128-115 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night. Memphis, led by former Bucks assistant coach Taylor Jenkins, completely shredded the Bucks’ defense from all three levels of the court.

That also included the Bucks allowing 60 opponent paint points, the second-highest mark they’ve surrendered in a game this season. Along with that, the 62.9 opponent effective field goal percentage Memphis posted is the fifth-highest mark the Bucks have allowed this season.

As the Grizzlies hit shots and dissected the Bucks’ normally stout interior defense, Budenholzer and the Bucks changed things up in the opening minutes of the second half. Even still, the Bucks’ execution in playing such a defense did little to slow down the Grizzlies’ stellar offensive attack, just as The Athletic’s Eric Nehm dove into after the game (subscription required).

Milwaukee has increasingly played zone defense as the season has gone on and almost exclusively on nights where the Bucks are without their starters for rest purposes. With that context in mind, here’s this statistical nugget from NBA.com’s John Schuhmann regarding the Bucks’ zone defense in his latest Power Rankings column:

“The Bucks’ zone also had some rough moments and, at 1.05 points allowed per possession, ranks 18th among the 24 defenses that have played at least 75 possessions of zone, according to Synergy tracking.”

The Milwaukee Bucks are evolving defensively, but progress hasn’t been linear

Whether it’s been incorporating more zone looks or turning to switching, along with playing their traditional drop-back scheme anytime Brook Lopez is on the floor, the Bucks have welcomed any and all tactical changes on that side of the ball.

Certainly adding a player of Jrue Holiday’s defensive caliber allows for the different approach the Bucks have taken and he’s seemingly a lock to land an All-Defensive selection this season. And their long-standing desire to add veteran forward P.J. Tucker, given his defensive expertise and the valuable role he played in the Houston Rockets’ switching defense under Mike D’Antoni and the James Harden era.

While the Grizzlies loss is an aberration in terms of their normally strong paint defense, they still succumb to the same 3-point shooting outbursts that have been a constant throughout the Budenholzer era. And that concern still stands true after the All-Star break where they’re allowing 41.1 opponent 3-point attempts per game and allowing 37.5 percent on such shots.

Of course, the Bucks have been without Holiday, Tucker as well as superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo for extended stretches in recent weeks and the season overall. And that has certainly affected their ability to grow collectively as a defensive unit, especially with these changes in mind.

Still, the uncomfortable question that all Bucks fans are grappling with is whether all of the defensive and personnel changes the Bucks are undergoing will be enough to overcome their postseason obstacles.

Considering the path that they’re going down towards as they look to make one last push for the top seed in the East ahead of their big matchups against the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, time is running out to improve their defensive execution. With 16 games remaining this regular season, the Bucks are running short of dress rehearsals before the real thing starts.