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The Bucks Are Trying To Win In Clutch Time Without Giving Giannis The Ball

Trailing the New Orleans Pelicans by 1 with just under five minutes remaining in a late February game, the Milwaukee Bucks spread the floor and put the ball in Khris Middleton’s hands. Giannis Antetokounmpo parked himself on the block, then skipped up above the 3-point line to spring Middleton free with a screen. Middleton pulled up from the right elbow. His jumper rimmed out.

Two possessions later, and still trailing by 1, the Bucks set up in the same alignment, only this time Donte DiVincenzo had the ball. Antetokounmpo delivered another screen, and DiVincenzo dropped a soft floater through the net. The next time down the floor, the Bucks went back to Middleton, with Antetokounmpo once again setting the pick. Middleton hit Antetokounmpo on the roll.

Over the game’s final five minutes, the Bucks ran eight plays out of the half court. Most teams in these situations would lean on their best player, especially when that player is the NBA’s two-time reigning MVP. The Bucks, however, took a different route, one that helped them secure a 129-125 win. On six of their possessions, Antetokounmpo’s primary role was to set a screen for someone else. Usually Middleton was the recipient. Twice he set up DiVincenzo. Had starting point guard Jrue Holiday not been sidelined because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, he likely would have been on the receiving end, too. 

In Mike Budenholzer’s first two seasons as their head coach, the Bucks were a pillar of consistency, both in style and success. On defense, they dropped starting center Brook Lopez toward the rim, walling off the paint, no matter who they played. On offense, they dotted the 3-point line with shooters, a habit drilled in by taping blue boxes down on their practice court, and gave the ball to Antetokounmpo over and over. They had specific principles, they stuck to them, and they won lots and lots of games — a league-best 60 games in 2019 and 56 last season, also league-best. But they also blew a 2-0 conference finals lead over the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and were upset by Miami Heat during the second round of last season’s playoffs in just five games.

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This season, the Bucks decided to take a different approach and turn the regular season into a lab. It’s one of the reasons they’ve been one of the league’s streakiest teams, recently becoming the first in NBA history to drop five straight after winning five in a row by more than 10 points within a season. They’ve experimented with switching on screens. They’ve tweaked their basic offensive alignment, stashing one player on the baseline in the “dunker spot,” a few feet off the low block. 

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But one of the more interesting changes they’ve made was on display during that victory over the Pelicans: Late in games, they’ve taken the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands. Last season, Antetokounmpo posted a usage rate1 of 42.3 percent in “clutch” situations,2 the league’s sixth-highest mark. This year, that number has plummeted to 26.3 percent. In general, he’s touching the ball about eight fewer times per game in the front court.   

There’s less of this:

And more of this: 

“I think we have multiple guys with him and Khris that can have the ball late in games,” Budenholzer said Thursday night when asked about this change. “And adding Jrue and maybe using Giannis in different places and using different guys in different spots. But certainly Giannis, his ability to finish and do things at the end of games is special, so I think we have more guys, we have more options.”

This isn’t the first time in Antetokounmpo’s career that he’s been relegated to a supporting role late in games. The difference is that this time, the Bucks are the ones doing the relegating.

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In each of the past two postseasons, the Raptors and Heat have flummoxed Antetokounmpo by packing the paint and taking away his driving lanes. Against the Raptors, Antetokounmpo remained aggressive but struggled finding his usual creases, shooting just 43.5 percent in Games 3 through 6, a 14-point drop from his regular-season rate. Against the Heat, Antetokounmpo struggled finding any creases, handing the reins to Middleton instead. He may have only faced them for six minutes of clutch time before spraining his ankle in Game 4, but the fact his usage rate in those minutes plunged to a miniscule 15.4 percent was still alarming. 

“Obviously, they’re going to try to build a wall as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after the Bucks’ Game 1 loss to Miami, adding: “Would I want to be aggressive? Obviously when the game is over and you look at the stat sheet and you only see 12 shots, you kind of wonder why didn’t I shoot more and could I have been more aggressive. But I think I’m just trying to make the right play.”

Budenholzer would never publicly concede as much, but it’s fair to assume that the logic behind this recent change to the crunch-time offense fell along the lines of: If it’s going to happen anyway, we might as well do it ourselves. And it’s a smart bet. Antetokounmpo, after all, has failed to improve as a shooter from any spots on the floor; his efficiency has actually dropped across the board, from the short midrange, to the long midrange, to behind the 3-point line. And he remains a poor free-throw shooter, at 66.8 percent.

Middleton, meanwhile, boasts all the skills you look for in a closer. The nine-year vet is a sniper from all ranges and a borderline 50-40-90 member (49.8 percent on field goals, 42.8 percent on triples, 88.5 percent from the foul line). His playmaking has steadily improved — his assist rate of 23.7 percent is a career high and one of the best figures among players at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s both excellent as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls (the 1.00 point he’s generated per pick-and-roll possessions is among the league’s better marks) and isolations (ditto for his efficiency in isolations).3 And while Holiday might not be an electric creator, he’s certainly solid in pick and rolls and isolations, too. Combine these two with a pick-and-roll dance partner like Antetokounmpo, and you should have a recipe for success. 

Given all that, the new crunch-time offense should be thriving, right? So far, that has not been the case. In 13 games featuring “clutch” situations, the Bucks have racked up just 110.6 points per 100 possessions, a nearly 7-point plunge from their overall rate, which happens to be the second-best number in the league. They’re 5-8 in these games.

What’s the issue? It’s hard to say. It could be a lack of firepower beyond Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holliday. Lopez, who has been featured in the Bucks’ primary fourth-quarter lineup, has connected on just 34.8 percent of his deep looks, a season removed from shooting a putrid 31.4 percent. Holiday’s extended absence — he missed 10 games — certainly hurt. Maybe it’s a mix of a small sample size and bad luck. Maybe the Bucks still have to work out the kinks of this new scheme to reach the level of fluidity and connectivity required to succeed in these spots. Or maybe Middleton, who’s seen his prowess in the pick and roll plummet in each of the previous two postseasons,4 suffers from some of the same problems as Antetokounmpo and isn’t quite dynamic enough as a creator in the half court to carry an offense in tight spots. 

Whatever the issue, the Bucks clearly intend to spend the rest of the regular season figuring it out. Maybe they won’t succeed. But if they do flame out early again this postseason, it won’t be for lack of trying something new.  

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  1. An estimate of the share of team possessions ended with a shot, free-throw trip or turnover from that specific player. Among players with at least 50 such minutes.

  2. Defined by as games within 5 points with five or fewer minutes remaining.

  3. Minimum of 10 minutes played per game and 10 possessions per play type.

  4. During last year’s regular season, he recorded 0.99 points per possession on pick and rolls; in the playoffs, that number dropped to 0.75. The season before, it went from 0.87 to 0.60.