On first glance, the Milwaukee Bucks might have looked like a lesser version of themselves coming into the 2020-21 playoffs. They still sport two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, whom they signed to a supermax extension in December. But their winning percentage and net rating dropped precipitously from last season, driven by a spike in their defensive rating from a first-ranked 102.5 in 2019-20 to a ninth-ranked 110.7.
Yet beneath the surface, the Bucks are an improved team, both in terms of their top-end weapons and their strategic flexibility. They are now built for postseason success rather than just regular-season domination. In Draymond Green’s terms, the Bucks are a 16-game team.
In past years, the Bucks changed the way the league plays defense in the 3-point era by prioritizing rim protection. An important component was stationing their center close to the rim when defending the pick and roll; in 2019-20, Brook Lopez played that “soft” coverage more than any player other than Rudy Gobert, per Second Spectrum, and the Bucks held opponents to a solid 0.94 points per chance with Lopez in soft coverage. But in the 2019-20 postseason, a commitment to that conservative coverage contributed to the team allowing Miami to shoot 36.7 percent on 9.8 pull-up threes per game in the Heat’s 4-1 series win. Miami’s pull-up frequency and accuracy were both higher in that series than its season averages.1
The Bucks learned that relying on one way to play can become a deficit in the postseason, no matter the strength of the system. They spent the 2020-21 regular season experimenting with more radical approaches to the defensive side of the ball.
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This season, Milwaukee’s switched screens 1,010 times, per Second Spectrum, far more than the 299 times they did in the previous season — the second-fewest in the league. They played 238 possessions of zone defense in 2020-21 compared with 45 in 2019-20. They weren’t the best or the most frequent user of any style of defense, but the Bucks weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel (again); they were only trying to pack a spare or two in case of a flat.
None of Milwaukee’s changes locks them into playing a specific way. In fact, Milwaukee accomplished its first-round sweep of Miami by adhering to its system from 2019-20. Per Second Spectrum, they played soft in the pick and roll far more than they switched, and they didn’t use a single possession of zone defense. Just because the Bucks can be flexible doesn’t mean they abandoned their former league-defining way of playing defense.
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Beyond their tactical shifts, the Bucks’ personnel looks different. Though they bungled a trade for Bogdan Bogdanović before the season, they did manage to land All-Star Jrue Holiday, who has made a world of difference for Milwaukee. His skills on both sides of the ball suit the Bucks’ newfound prioritization of versatility. Eric Bledsoe, the starting point guard whom Holiday replaced, never reached Holiday’s percentages of 37.9 on catch-and-shoot threes and 40.0 on pull-up threes in the same season. The Bucks were more efficient this regular season with Holiday running the pick and roll than they were last year with every player handling other than Khris Middleton, per Second Spectrum. Holiday was better in isolation than anyone on the Bucks either this season or last.
Defensively, Holiday’s resume speaks for itself — he’s twice made an All-Defense team. He can trail over screens to contest pull-ups if Milwaukee is playing soft or switch and defend wings in isolation. Kevin Durant has called him “probably the best” guard defender in the league and said that “he causes more problems for me than guys my own size.” His on/off impact defensively is second only to that of Antetokounmpo among rotation players.2
Though Middleton is perhaps a third fiddle rather than second with Holiday on the roster, the shifting hierarchy hasn’t affected his game. His box score output is practically the same as last year’s, and though he runs a slightly higher rate of pick and rolls, the manner in which he is used is the same as last year as well, per Second Spectrum. The Bucks also score at almost identical rates, between 1.01 and 1.08 points per chance, with Middleton initiating either as a handler, in the post or in isolation. He represents continuity for a team that has voluntarily undergone dramatic changes, and his ability to close allows the rest of the Bucks to shift to their best positions.
Thundering over top of the Bucks’ foundation remains Antetokounmpo. He may not win the MVP again this year, but he has in some ways been better than he was during his two award-winning seasons.
Antetokounmpo has shifted the way in which he attacks the offensive end. Over his career, he has increased his isolations and screening in pick and rolls at the expense of handling in the pick and roll.
At the same time, Antetokounmpo is more effective in his bevy of roles than ever before. He is setting career highs in efficiency as a pick-and-roll handler and as an isolation scorer. The Bucks are scoring more than a point per chance for only the second time in Antetokounmpo’s career with him as a screener.3 Yet the varied means by which he enters offensive sets hasn’t changed the result; he still ends up shooting the majority of his shots at the rim, and he’s better than ever when he gets there.
Antetokounmpo turns the best general shot in basketball — a layup — into the best specific offensive outcome of the past two decades in the NBA. He shot 78.8 percent on shots from 5 feet or fewer this year, the best percentage among players with at least 500 shots from that area in the NBA Advanced Stats database, which begins in 1996-97. For a player to score as efficiently from deep as Antetokounmpo at the rim, he’d have to shoot 52.5 percent. No one has ever come close to that accuracy from deep on the same frequency as Antetokounmpo’s attempts at the rim (9.5 per game).
Against the Heat, Antetokounmpo attempted even more shots at the rim than he did in the regular season, and he leads the entire playoffs with 11.8 per game. Opponents’ build-a-wall defense is less effective when Antetokounmpo creates offense in such a variety of ways, with and without the ball. With Holiday and Middleton able to start plays in the post, in isolation and as handlers, and also space the floor for the other star, Antetokounmpo is able to finish plays at the rim without having to drive through thickets of defenders to get there.
Perhaps the statistic that looms most in the Bucks’ favor going forward is that they managed the sweep of the Heat despite Antetokounmpo scoring less efficiently than he did in the 2019-20 loss to the Heat. More broadly, the Bucks shot less efficiently on possessions in which Antetokounmpo was involved in the play than they did in their previous series, per Second Spectrum. Yet the Bucks created better shots on those plays than they did in 2019-20, meaning they actually underperformed against the Heat.4 Going forward, the Bucks have room for improvement still.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, they will now face the Brooklyn Nets. For all of Antetonkounmpo’s talents, the Nets roster two players with comparable accolades in James Harden and Durant. Milwaukee will be without the injured Donte DiVincenzo, an important role player as a shooter and point-of-attack defender. The Bucks were arguably more talented than the Heat in 2019-20 and the Toronto Raptors in 2018-19, but their schematic choices doomed them. Now, the Bucks are more prepared schematically than ever, but they are facing a team with a clear talent advantage.
Against Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving, the Bucks may well start in their soft defense and ask Lopez to stay near the rim, hoping their superstar opponents settle for midrange shots. Durant and Irving shot better than 50 percent from the midrange in the regular season, but their accuracy may drop with the length of Lopez in the paint and Antetokounmpo helping to clog the middle of the lane. If the Nets decide to pull up from deep coming around ball screens — with Lopez in the paint and unable to dissuade those triples — the Bucks can circumvent that by switching; all of Holiday, Middleton and Antetokounmpo are capable of defending any of the Nets’ stars. If Lopez’s rim protection is made superfluous, the Bucks can play one of the ultimate switchable centers in P.J. Tucker5 and comfortably ask him to guard any of Brooklyn’s Big Three, as well. Antetokounmpo himself can play center and protect the rim or switch onto anyone and defend in space. There are options that wouldn’t have been available to the Bucks before.
With Holiday on the roster and Antetokounmpo better than ever, the Bucks should be able to create efficient offense in a variety of ways that they either didn’t or couldn’t do in past playoff failures. They went 2-1 in the regular season against Brooklyn, and when Holiday, Middleton or Antetokounmpo isolated, the Bucks scored more efficiently than in the same scenarios over the full season, per Second Spectrum.6 The Nets had the 21st-ranked half-court defense in the regular season, compared to the Heat’s eighth-ranked one, and the Bucks scored as efficiently in the half court against the Heat as they did in the regular season; they shouldn’t have a world of trouble creating offense against the Nets.
Antetokounmpo’s offense is more efficient than ever. With Holiday and Middleton at or near their peaks, he has never had more talent alongside him. The Bucks seem to have a strategic answer for any situation. Versatility is now on Milwaukee’s side. The Bucks have never faced a test like the Nets, but neither have they ever been as prepared to overcome it.
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