The Milwaukee Bucks have found their identity for closing games

Dec 25, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 25, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Things are a little messy with the Milwaukee Bucks‘ rotations. They’ve been without many key rotation players over the last month or so due to injuries and COVID-related absences that it can have an impact trying to find the right combination of players to play in the rotation.

There was one small stretch, however, when things were as normal as possible and the Bucks took advantage of it to find a group that could close games together.

Ever since P.J. Tucker walked in the offseason, the Bucks have been looking for someone to play alongside the big three that can be trusted defensively as well as not be a zero on the offensive end. Despite Tucker’s diminished shooting in his stint with the Bucks, he still found a way to be impactful by crashing the offensive glass.

There were a few candidates coming into the season, namely Semi Ojeleye (who I was relatively high on), but the player that has emerged is someone that wasn’t even on the roster for the first 20 games of the season: Wesley Matthews.

The Milwaukee Bucks have found their closing lineup in big moments

Admittedly, the sample is very small for this four-man group, but still, we saw some incredibly encouraging things from them in those limited minutes.

Let’s start with the basics. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews has played a total of 25 possessions together and has a plus-109.8 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass (subscription required).

Their offensive rating is over 160 and their defensive rating is under 60. Again, small sample, but that’s unbelievable. The only negatives, statistically, are that they don’t force a ton of turnovers and that they foul a little too much.

But what is it that this group does so well that they are this dominant?

It’s something simple that Bucks fans and neutral Bucks observers have been begging them to do for the last couple of seasons prior to last year: switching.

Prior to the acquisition of Holiday, the Bucks were still equipped enough to play a switchable defense but under multiple head coaches, they avoided doing so. Jason Kidd employed a more aggressive base defense than Mike Budenholzer, sure, but it was based around trapping pick and rolls. It worked for the first half of his first season and then very much stopped working.

Budenholzer was roasted for relying so heavily on his drop coverage the first couple of years of his tenure, even though he had Matthews for a season along with Eric Bledsoe, who could also switch credibly. But last year he diversified. We saw a multitude of defensive coverages from drop to zone to some switching.

When the Bucks acquired Tucker, that emboldened them to switch even more. The big three with Tucker were plus-13.5 per 100 possessions in the playoffs and were the bedrock of their defense that helped win the title.

I’m not going to say Matthews is as good of a defender as Tucker, but he provides the same versatility. That’s what makes this four-man unit work is that they can play different ways.

Against the Boston Celtics, we saw that group dominate by switching and forcing the Celtics to play isolation-heavy basketball. It allowed the Bucks to come back and win that game on Christmas Day.

They played well with either Antetokounmpo or Bobby Portis at center, which offers two different types of schemes. When Giannis is at the five, they can play one of George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, or Pat Connaughton to provide maximum switchability (I’d go with DiVincenzo, all things being equal). If it’s Portis at the five, then their aggressive pick and roll coverage becomes easier having Matthews on the floor.

That group will also be able to play with Brook Lopez if (when?) he returns because we’ve seen it happen. Lopez, Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Matthews, and Bledsoe were plus-19.1 together in 2019-20 over 971 possessions and now they’ve simply swapped Bledsoe for an even better defensive point guard.

It’s clear why Matthews only wanted to come home and play for the Bucks. He’s been a tremendous fit with the roster and has stepped right into being one of their most crucial rotation players.

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This is a unit that will be huge for the Bucks in big games, the only question is when will we get to see it again.