Down 2-0, there are no easy answers for the Milwaukee Bucks
The great irony for the Milwaukee Bucks is that they are built to harness the unique versatility of their league-MVP, despite possessing little flexibility to adjust as a team. Down 2-0 in the conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, the top-seeded Bucks find themselves at the precipice, not for a lack of talent, but because their opponent has succeeded in exploiting the rigidity of their system.
Entering the postseason, Milwaukee banked on the efficiency of their schematics to buy time for them to develop the type of counterpunch that is critical to postseason success.
After Game 2, they now have less than 48 hours to find it.
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Though they are known for their dropping defense on pick-and-rolls – giving up the most 3-pointers in the league – the Bucks have actually been selective for most of the year, in the players they choose to give a pass. While walling off the paint is still their top priority when playing Giannis with another big, Milwaukee will not only commit their wing-defenders to selling-out against the opponent’s best shooter – evidenced by their focus in getting over screens against the Heat’s Duncan Robinson – but bring their big, most often Brook Lopez, slightly up to contest; making the action resemble a traditional switching defense.
Against lesser threats from behind the arc, the Bucks are willing to cede the daylight afforded by refusing the switch, banking that these second and third options will be unable to hit them at a high enough rate; a strategy, largely proven correct throughout the season by, well, math.
The Heat, however, not only possess multiple shooters capable of hitting from range, but feature them in a way that circumvents the Bucks’ attempt to dictate the action. Consider the aforementioned Duncan Robinson midway through the third quarter. Fearful of his shooting, Milwaukee brought Marvin Williams up above the free-throw line in guarding Kelly Olynk, ready to quarrel the undrafted guard should he receive the handoff.
Aware of the attention paid to him by the defense, Robinson instead darted to the weak-side, forcing Williams to shade in his direction, and in doing so, allowed Olynk space to spin away from Williams with a driving lane to the rim. It’s the type of action that alters the “gravity” on the court in a way that we are used to seeing with Stephen Curry, but that the Heat employ knowing the Bucks’ defense is built to respond to the opponents’ best shooter, in the same way, teams adjust to the Warriors’ guard.
The problem for Milwaukee, in potentially adjusting their defense to include more switches rather than drops in the pick-and-roll – which is what I imagine most will call for prior to Game 3 – is centered on Brook Lopez. Should they employ the switch in a traditional manner, it would be highly likely that Miami would have their wings take Lopez off the dribble, penetrating into the paint and forcing an emergency rotation by Giannis to the lane – where the Heat could then choose between a shot close to the rim, or a kick out to Antetokounmpo’s man left in the corner.
Taking Lopez out in an attempt to play with a lineup able to handle the switch, however, only shifts the imbalance to the other side of the floor for the Bucks, where their subpar shooting with Lopez has been a major factor in their early deficit.
Building a wall in front of Giannis whenever the all-world forward has attempted to drive into the lane, Miami has been superb at sending help only to scramble back and closeout as the MVP is forced to dish the ball out to the perimeter and reset. Early in Game 2, the Bucks anticipated this and made a point to station Lopez in the corner, banking that the 7-footer could use his height to get a shot off despite any recovery – which he did three times in a row, with the added benefit of two fouls, thanks the Heat overcorrecting in the closeout.
Without Robin’s twin on the floor, the Bucks would almost certainly be forced to play Kyle Korver more than the 10 minutes he’s been receiving, in an attempt to create space and driving lanes for Giannis to work with; though he remains just as big a liability defensively as the man he’d be replacing, and without the post-defense and rebounding the former provides.
In essence, this captures the conundrum Mike Budenholzer finds himself in: patch one hole, only for a leak to spring elsewhere.
One possible solution may actually be for the Bucks to revert to the aggressive style of defense they employed before Budenholzer’s arrival. Playing under the tutelage of Jason Kidd – God help us – Milwaukee would blitz the ball-handler coming off the screen, banking that their length would either force a turnover, or at the very least force a pass slightly off course, and allowing the defense enough time to recover.
While this didn’t work to great success at the time – clearly – this was most often because the Bucks would break down on the secondary actions away from the ball, something that is unlikely to occur to such a degree with this veteran-laden iteration of the team. Operating with the belief that Milwaukee is best when featuring Giannis with another big – and they almost certainly are by the numbers – such an aggressive style would provide a viable path for mitigating Miami’s offensive success thus far, without the disruption of crafting new rotations.
It would also, theoretically, increase the amount of time the Bucks play in transition, using the turnovers as a catalyst for a play-type they employed on 20 percent of their possessions according to Synergy Sports.
Ultimately, there remains no single panacea for Milwaukee. Though they may comfort themselves with the knowledge that they were only a few shots short of a split, if not lead, in the series, it has become clear that adjustments must be made if they are to survive. To put it simply, the Miami Heat have punched them in the mouth, now we get to see if the Bucks know how to throw one back.