Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer has been justifiably criticized in the past for his inability or unwillingness to make adjustments to his system in order to turn the tide in Playoff series. This year has felt like Groundhog Day to many of us already, so why not add another way to the list?
The top-seeded Bucks find themselves down 2-0 to a supremely game Miami Heat team, and the officiating shenanigans from the end of Game 2 notwithstanding, Milwaukee has been thoroughly handled by Miami throughout the bulk of both contests. The Heat deserves a ton of credit for being a more-than-worthy adversary, of course. They are tough, versatile, well-coached, and not remotely afraid of the moment. That being said, the Bucks aren’t finished, but they will be soon if Coach Bud keeps stridently adhering to the principles of his system and counting on the math to work itself out. It works great over the large sample size of the regular season, but this is a different animal. This is one seven-game sample, against a very well prepared team who clearly has their shit figured out. Either Budenholzer adapts, or the Bucks will face a quick-yet-agonizing death, along with all the attendant questions which will follow, given MVP/DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency in the summer of 2021.
Even if we start with the assumption (again, a sizable one) that Coach Bud is capable of making real adjustments, what should they be?
Tighten the freaking rotation. Someone should probably inform Bud that all of the depth and load management they deployed during the regular year was meant to allow him to lean more heavily on his primary guys in big playoff moments. Well, guess what? These are those moments! And as you may recall, they also had a four month hiatus in the middle of the season. There is simply no reason to hold anyone or anything back at this juncture, yet he continues to stick to a rotation with too many players and not enough run for the stars. Giannis and Khris Middleton played 36 and 33 minutes in Game 2, respectively. Middleton was a +18 in those minutes. [They both had some fouls throughout the game, but at a certain point, you just have to say fuck it and roll the dice.]
On the other end of the spectrum, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo combined for 20 minutes and 2 points on 1-of-5 shooting. I like certain things both of those guys do, but they are not helping in this series. Excise both from the rotation entirely and feed all those minutes to Giannis and Middleton (and maybe a few more to George Hill). Miami never puts a bad minute on the floor; the Bucks need to match that consistency.
Miami wants to form a wall against Giannis. Stop letting them. The purest forms of the modern, five-out offenses found in Milwaukee and Houston have a number of built-in advantages. They create a ton of space for the primary playmakers (Giannis and James Harden, respectively) to attack in isolation and use their physical gifts. The attention they draw also provides space for the shooters dotted around the three-point arc to rain fire from above. It’s like a boxing match: the paint points and free throws are like body blows to soften up the defense, and the outside shots are the right crosses and uppercuts to the head. During the grind of the regular season, the approach creates a ton of low-hanging fruit against inferior/tired/traveling teams without a lot of time to practice or prepare. And no one is better at creating and capitalizing on all that easy, juicy stuff. They generate a ton of paint looks (while taking away the paint from their opponent with their length and scheme) and open catch-and-shoot threes, and combined with a fast pace, it’s enough over a few thousand possessions to tilt the odds in an appreciable way.
Problem is, a playoff series confers none of these advantages, especially in the bubble. The homecourt advantage they worked all season for is virtually meaningless, there is no travel, and opponents have nothing to do but rest and gameplan for them. The total number of possessions is shrunk down, and the opponent can lock in on taking away the easy stuff and the sorts of shots on which the offense thrives. Against the Bucks, there is no mystery about what this means — keep Giannis away from the hoop, no matter what. Toronto provided the “form a wall” blueprint last season, and Miami has changed virtually nothing about the plan. Teams have figured out they can’t survive the string of body blows and the eventual head shots it enables. The Bucks have a reputation as a sweet-shooting team, but again, it’s more a function of volume than anything else. Milwaukee shoots easily the highest percentage in the league from two-point range (56.7% for the season), but is only 18th in 3P% as a team (35.5%), despite attempting the fourth-highest percentage of threes as a proportion of total field goal attempts. George Hill, Kyle Korver, and Khris Middleton are all plus outside shooters. Everyone else…meh. If taking away Giannis layups and dunks means conceding semi-open looks to Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Wes Matthews, DiVincenzo, Connaughton, and Marvin Williams, well, that’s a trade-off teams are willing to live with.
One of the downsides of Milwaukee’s attack (and in a somewhat similar vein, Houston’s) is that it’s easy for the offense to become stagnant when shooters are at their stations and Giannis is mostly dictating the tempo of everything. So long as Giannis keeps getting to the rim, the math keeps working, and at a superficial level, everything seems fine. If that first domino stops falling, though…yikes.
When teams take away the primary thing an offense is trying to do, it’s obviously not sufficient to just say, “Oh well, we tried. Let’s pack it up.” You have to try something else! Milwaukee has options to counter-punch, both strategically and personnel-wise, if they choose to do so. How can they generate more paint touches and take pressure off of their jump shooters?
First, address the stagnancy problem. Get more player movement from every position, including Giannis, which we’ll address in a moment. Instead of just stationing shooters in the corners and on the wings, move and replace, cut away from the ball, set more pin-down screens — anything to take some of those ten defensive eyeballs off of Giannis, even briefly. [Watching a Bucks’ game followed by a Rockets’ game on Wednesday night amounted to five hours of me yelling “Someone cut!” at my TV. Good times.]
Second, stop conceding the formation of the Giannis wall to the defense. So, so, soooo many of Milwaukee’s sets functionally begin with Giannis holding the ball at a standstill — either on top, on the wing, or at the nail — against a set defense. This despite the Freak continually proving himself to be the planet’s most unstoppable offensive force when attacking a defense which is on its heels in some way. So find new ways to get them on their heels. They have been using Giannis more as the screener in the pick-and-roll, which has been effective at times in springing the ball handler for an open look. [Korver had a ton of these in Game 1, with mixed results.] This alone isn’t producing many paint touches though, because Miami’s rotations are surgical and they always get into the lane early to short circuit Giannis as he rolls to the basket, making any potential catch extremely difficult.
As with Harden to some extent, not supplying a screener to Giannis as the ball handler is logical because bringing another defender into the picture mitigates his one-on-one advantages. So how can they generate those iso touches but not let the defense load up on the impending foray to the lane? Again, player movement seems like the obvious answer. Stop just planting Giannis in one place, forcing him to work to get the ball, and then barreling into a wall of defenders. Initiate the sets with a different action, like a PnR with Bledsoe and Middleton on the opposite side. Run a two-man game with Giannis and Lopez, taking advantage of Brook’s prodigious ability to mash fools on the block as a way to make the defense collapse on someone other than the Freak. Start him on the second side and flow into some dribble handoffs with multiple screening actions. Have a guard cross-screen for Giannis in semi-transition or early offense. Anything to get him the ball moving north-south where the defense can’t load up in advance to stop it. None of this is complicated; it just involves everyone having a willingness to do something different and move their asses around more. Which leads to the obvious but important final adjustment:
Execute. It’s not exactly hard-hitting analysis to say Giannis needs to make his free throws, and the Bucks need to stop turning the ball over and fouling so damn much. The obviousness of it doesn’t make it any less true. Miami has out-executed Milwaukee in nearly every aspect of the game over the first eight quarters of the series, and all the math in the world can’t save the Bucks if they don’t start doing basic, fundamental basketball things correctly far more often. Set better screens, don’t make lazy passes, attack seams in the defense quickly and decisively, and communicate defensive coverages and switches in a way which makes it appear the five players on the court have actually met each other before. If Coach Bud can’t motivate his guys to take some pride in their craft in the most capital-M Must Win game of the season on Friday, then it’s time to rethink what it is his brilliant system is really meant to accomplish.
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