Examining the Milwaukee Bucks’ postseason 3-point struggles since 2019

Mar 4, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 4, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated in game seven against the Boston Celtics by 28 points. Many things went wrong in that game and the series as a whole, but the main problem was a familiar one — the Bucks simply were not good enough from 3-point range.

Milwaukee shot an abysmal 4-for-33 on threes in game seven against Boston, the worst 3-point shooting performance ever by a team in a Game 7 (minimum 25 attempts). Some of this can be attributed to a good performance from a stellar Boston defense, but a lot of it is just bad luck and bad shooting.

And this is something that Bucks fans have become familiar with in the playoffs. The team adopted the “Let It Fly” mentality in 2018 when Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach, and they have been among the league leaders in 3-point attempts every year since. This has worked for them in the regular season, as they have the eighth best regular season 3-point percentage since 2018 at 36.5 percent. However, in the playoffs during this same span, that 3-point percentage has dropped to just 33.3 percent, which ranks 23rd out of 27 playoff teams since 2018.

In 2018-19, the Bucks shot 35.3 percent from three in the regular season. They maintained a solid 35.4 percent from three in the first two rounds of the playoffs, winning nine of 10 games and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, in that series against Toronto, their 3-point percentage dropped all the way to 31 percent. Their five players who attempted the most threes in that series all shot below their regular season percentage, with Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic each shooting about 16 percent worse than they did in the regular season. Those two alone combined to go just 11-for-60 in the series, and the Bucks went on to lose this series in six games.

The next year, in 2019-20, Milwaukee shot 35.5 percent from three in the regular season, which was pretty average, but still good for a team that was attempting as many threes as they were (fourth most in the NBA). In the bubble playoffs, however, it was a similar story to the season before, as they shot a nice 38.3 percent in the opening round to defeat the Magic, but then dropped all the way to 32.7 percent in the second round against Miami, losing in five games. This was among the worst 3-point percentages for any team in a playoff series that season, as the bubble improved many other teams’ 3-point shooting, but not Milwaukee’s.

Khris Middleton shot just 33 percent in that series after being around 42 percent in the regular season, George Hill dropped from 46 percent to 33 percent, Eric Bledsoe went from 34 percent to 21 percent, and Giannis went from 30 percent to 21 percent. Once again, several players dropped well below their averages and the Bucks’ 3-point shooting killed them.

Fast forward to 2020-21, the year the Bucks finally got over the hump and won the title. Well, if you assumed that the Bucks finally hit their threes and that’s what helped them win the title, you assumed wrong. The Bucks boasted a fantastic 38.9 percentage from three in the regular season (fifth in the NBA). Then, in the playoffs, that number shockingly fell all the way to 32.1 percent, the third worst among any team in those playoffs (the two worst teams both lost in the first round).

This is an incredible drop, especially considering they went on to win the championship despite that low percentage (thanks, Giannis). Only one regular playoff rotation player shot better from three in the playoffs than they did in the regular season (Pat Connaughton), and the two players who attempted the most playoff threes (Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday) combined to shoot 32 percent after being above 40 percent combined in the regular season.

And now, in 2021-22, the Bucks shot just 32.7 percent from three in the playoffs after being at 36.6 percent in the regular season. They were good in round one, shooting 38 percent from three and beating the Bulls in five games. But in round two against Boston, they shot an awful 27.9 percent and lost in seven games. This was a slightly more predictable drop off considering that one of their best 3-point shooters was out in Khris Middleton, but the drop in percentage was still far worse than expected.

Milwaukee was particularly awful in the final two games of the season after taking a 3-2 series lead. In those final two closeout games, they shot just 11-for-62 (17.7 percent) from three as a team, and their best shooter was actually Giannis Antetokounmpo, who went 3-for-7. All other players combined to go 8-for-55 (14.5 percent), and every other player besides Giannis (43 percent) and Bobby Portis (33 percent) shot 25 percent or worse in those final two games.

Looking at ShotQuality, the Bucks were expected to score 11 more points on threes in Game 6 and 20 more points on threes in Game 7 based on the shots they took and who took them. Based on ShotQuality, those games should have both been far closer than they were. It was simply just bad shooting from guys who normally hit a good percentage of their threes, and it’s something that is hard to explain.

I do think it is important to look at everything as a whole and not just those final two games. In the playoffs as a whole, Wesley Matthews shot 40 percent from three despite going 0-for-5 in the final two games, Grayson Allen shot 39.6 percent despite going 0-for-8 in the final two games, and Pat Connaughton shot 39.1 percent despite going 2-for-8 in the final two games. Those three were shooting a combined 44.1 percent in the playoffs prior to those final two losses and then went on to shoot a combined 9.5 percent in those last two games. This is very unexplainable, but it’s important to remember they are still great shooters who, in the grand scheme of things, were good in the playoffs.

The Bucks have built their team to rely heavily on outside shooting around Giannis, and as a result, things like this can happen when they go cold. Combining the regular season and playoffs, they are attempting the fourth-most threes per game in the league during the Mike Budenholzer era, and when you live by the three, you often die by the three. Not having Khris Middleton for the playoffs this season definitely hurt their percentages and put more pressure and attention on everyone, but it was still a very disappointing shooting performance in the series against Boston regardless.

Giannis can still win games essentially by himself and cover up some bad 3-point shooting like he did in the 2021 playoffs, but ideally, guys will step up and hit threes consistently so that doesn’t need to happen.

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Milwaukee is going to continue to try to acquire outside shooting via the draft or free agency and hold on to their current best shooters (Middleton, Connaughton, Matthews) with the hopes that this pattern of struggling in the playoffs can come to an end.