What a difference a couple home games make.
The Raptors were up against it just a few days ago, looking overmatched in a Game 2 beatdown on Friday in Milwaukee to go down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, they have stormed back with two wins in Toronto to even the series at two game apiece, including a convincing 120-102 pantsing of the Bucks in Game 4 on Tuesday. The East now comes down to a three-game series, and though Milwaukee has the home court edge, Toronto seems to have acclimated to the Bucks’ futuristic style and found ways to slow down likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With the series now shifting back onto U.S. soil for Game 5 (Thursday, 8:30 PM ET, TNT), what adjustments can Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks make to stanch the bleeding and retake control? It’s a tricky question because generally speaking, the Bucks are like the Houston Rockets in that their strategy is to play the way they play and force the opponent to adjust to them. This works well in the regular season because they aren’t playing the same team night after night. However, over four games with Toronto, they haven’t looked particularly great for most of three of them. They’ve shot poorly overall — 42/ 30/ 73 as a team — which of course begs the “chicken or the egg” question of whether they just aren’t making shots or Toronto’s defense is forcing them into difficult looks. The “it’s a make or miss league” trope is boring and well-worn at this point, though, so let’s look at some other things Milwaukee can do to mix it up and make life easier on themselves heading into a pivotal Game Five. [As sportswriters, we are legally obligated to refer to all Game 5’s as “pivotal.” I don’t make the rules.]
Improved shot selection. I don’t know if the tendency to take piss-poor shots at inopportune moments is a necessary byproduct of Coach Bud’s #LetItFly culture and the confidence it breeds, but boy, it stuck out like a sore thumb in Games 3 and 4. Down two with 11 seconds left in regulation in Game 3, Khris Middleton pulled up for three in transition while triple-covered. I was literally shouting “What are you doing?” at the TV as it was happening, and naturally, the shot wasn’t even close. [The Bucks only forced OT after getting bailed out by two missed FTs by Pascal Siakam and then having Middleton’s own blocked shot fall right into his lap for a putback layup to tie the game. I suppose one could argue his poor shot selection worked out for the best there, but the good result doesn’t justify the poor process.]
Not to be deterred, on his very first shot of Game 4 — at the 11:22 mark of the first quarter — Middleton pulled up for another terrible, contested three with time left on the shot clock. To Middleton’s credit, he was the best player on the floor for Milwaukee in Game 4, scoring 30 and carrying the offense for several stretches in the second and third quarters as Toronto was trying to pull away, but both of the aforementioned shots are symptoms of the same disease. It is undoubtedly freeing to be able to let loose from anywhere at anytime, but against an opponent as smart and technically proficient as Toronto, discretion has to be the better part of valor. Oftentimes, that freedom starts to look more like settling, particularly for Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, two guys who are both more-than-capable of creating a good shot if they work for it. [Yes, Bledsoe has been mostly horrific in the series to this point. We’ll get to him.]
The Bucks play best at a fast pace, and they have owned Toronto in transition. I have zero problems with jacking a shot early in the clock if it comes out of an advantageous position. But they have to figure out how to play fast within the halfcourt as well by keeping the ball popping and not being stagnant and predictable. More ball and player movement will get them better looks, which should help the percentages improve and limit the tendencies of guys to hunt for their own shot, regardless of quality. Their normal, five-out offense is devastating, but it becomes less so as the opponent gets more reps against it, begins to anticipate the patterns, and realizes what they can give up and what they can’t. All of which leads into the next point…
Change up how and where Giannis initiates the action. As anticipated, Toronto has employed the “form a fucking wall” defensive strategy against the Greek Freak, essentially playing a 1-2-2 zone and pinching in the wing defenders whenever Giannis tries to drive from the top of the key. Lest we forget, Antetokounmpo is a damn alien, so he has still created a fairly steady diet of decent looks for himself and his teammates, despite smashing into a brick wall of three Raptors’ defenders on most possessions. But it has not been easy sledding, and as the percentages indicate, his colleagues are not exactly holding up their end of the bargain in the shooting department.
Much like the rest of human history, the answer is rarely to continue smashing against the wall; the way to limit a wall’s efficacy is to go where it isn’t. So long as Giannis continues to attack the defense from the top of the key, the point man in the “zone” (whether it’s Kawhi, Siakam, or Serge Ibaka) will keep pressing up to limit his runway, and the other two defenders will keep pinching in to prevent him from getting near the hoop. The answer is to either get the Freak the ball in other spots on the floor, or find different ways to get him going downhill so the extra defenders have less of a chance of stopping him. The Bucks have run some post-ups for Giannis, with mixed results. Toronto almost always sends a hard double team at him as soon as he catches, and his decision-making in passing out of the trap has been a bit spotty. That said, there is hay to be made if he can resist the urge to try to do too much and the other guys around him can keep the ball pinging and, you know, make open shots.
Milwaukee could try using Giannis more in the pick-and-roll, especially as the screener for either Middleton or Malcolm Brogdon, their two best ballhandlers who don’t allow the defense to go under the screen. They could run him off some dribble hand-offs to get him the ball on the move, while also forcing a compromised defense to react (rather than allowing a set defense to key on him from the top of the arc). None of this stuff is really in their basketball DNA because the overwhelming gravity of Giannis normally makes the math work even in a relatively simplified scheme. This is the first time another team has truly forced them out of their offensive comfort zone this year, so they’ll either adapt or die.
Only play Brook Lopez when Marc Gasol is on the floor. This qualifies as somewhat of a minor tweak, but when there are only a maximum of 144 minutes left in your season if you don’t get it right, every possession counts. Lopez, who spent much of the season unlocking the best version of this Bucks’ team, has morphed into something of a liability in the playoffs, his Game 1 outburst notwithstanding. He is a stout interior defender, but much like Boston did, Toronto has essentially ceded the paint to Milwaukee. Rather, both teams have effectively played Lopez off the floor by running him through repeated pick-and-rolls, where his lack of lateral agility and tendency to drop back into the lane can be exploited. Lopez has been decent enough from the outside (9/25 for 36%) to mostly offset this weakness, but to create any positive delta from his play, they need him to be matched up against Gasol, another hulking stretch-5, on virtually every possession. They can go smaller in those non-Gasol minutes without losing anything meaningful in terms of defense, rebounding, and spacing. [Yes, Ibaka gave them trouble on the offensive glass in Game 4, but that looked to be more a problem of effort than scheme.] Coach Bud tends to be a creature of habit when it comes to substitution patterns, but this is low-hanging fruit. Get the matchups right on every possession possible.
Either dance with Bledsoe and Mirotic or don’t. Nikola Mirotic simply hasn’t gotten it done so far in this series. He’s 6-for-28 from deep (21 percent), is tied for second on the team in turnovers, and the Bucks are getting absolutely roasted when he’s on the floor (-20 in just over 100 minutes). Even good shooters go through slumps and break out of them eventually, but there isn’t much “eventually” left. If he’s going to provide value in this series, he needs to have at least one monster shooting game, and his chances are dwindling. In the meantime, he’s been a liability on defense, in part because he just isn’t that great a defender, and in part because there is no one on Toronto for him to guard. He primarily gets matched up with either Danny Green or Norman Powell, and Mirotic lacks the foot speed and awareness to stick with those smaller, faster players, either in transition or chasing them through thickets of screens. [To his credit, Powell has done a great job canning open shots, but why do you think he’s so open all the time?]
Mirotic has averaged over 25 minutes through Game Four, which may be untenable going forward. Budenholzer has used the depth at his disposal to great effect in managing the minutes of his primary players all season, but if he isn’t going to take advantage of that freshness with the season on the line, then what was the point? They’ve been trying to bring Malcolm Brogdon along slowly after returning from his foot injury, but it’s time to take the kid gloves off. It would make more sense to start Brogdon over Mirotic and give him at least 36-38 minutes. Brogdon shot poorly in Game 4, but on the whole, he gives them better spacing, playmaking, and defense, and he matches up better with the lineups Toronto is using. It’s tough to throttle down a guy as talented as Mirotic, but this isn’t the series for him, and as I’ve tried to make clear, every one of the 240 available minutes of court time in these last 2-3 games is crucial.
It’s less clear-cut what to do with Bledsoe. He is still giving tremendous effort and defending like hell (he was just named First Team All-Defense yesterday, and it was no fluke), but he’s become such a net-negative on the offensive end he is borderline unplayable. The Raptors are not guarding him at all, and it’s clogging up all the other driving and passing lanes the Bucks rely on to survive. Bledsoe has zero confidence in his jump shot, and he’s been benched for George Hill (that is to say, clearly pulled from the game due to his play rather than as a normal rotational decision) at least three times in the last two games alone. He played only 20 minutes in Game 4, and even that might be too much if Milwaukee is going to have to play 4-on-5 on offense whenever he’s on the floor. It’s a difficult needle to thread because they don’t want to completely shatter the confidence of a notoriously prickly player to whom they just committed a 4-year, $70 million extension, but when you’re six wins from a title, the long game kinda goes out the window. Life comes at you fast; this may be Milwaukee’s shot. Bledsoe was a borderline All-Star this season, and they can’t completely go away from him, even if they do bump up Hill’s minutes. Again, Coach Bud tends to favor a “dance with what brung ya” philosophy, but he has to be thinking long and hard about how to best deploy a foundational player who also appears to be utterly shook by the moment.
Make shots when no one is around. The “make or miss” aspect of the open threes the offense is still creating is part of this, but lost in the discussion about the sub-par shooting from the field is how lousy their free throw shooting has also been. Milwaukee has gotten to the line significantly more than Toronto (121 attempts vs. 98), which is not a major surprise considering the bulldozing style of Giannis. However, Milwaukee has only netted seven additional points from the line because they are shooting a full ten percentage points worse than the Raptors (72.7% vs. 82.7%). Giannis conspicuously airballed two separate freebies in Toronto, which makes it fair to question if it will be a mental issue for him going forward. The Bucks created a big delta in the regular season by getting to the stripe far more often than their opponents — they shot 229 more free throws than the opposition — and the trend is continuing against Toronto. However, they converted those chances at a 77.3% rate during the regular year, so the advantage evaporates pretty quickly if the shots don’t fall.
Some will ascribe the drop-off to the relative playoff inexperience of the roster vis-a-vis the Raptors, but that’s a lazy narrative. The Bucks were tested after Game 1 against Boston, and they responded with a new level of focus and intensity. They are facing an even more stern test against Toronto. Do they possess that next level of focus — that championship level — or not? I can’t wait to find out over the next few days.
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