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The Bucks’ Static Offense Is The Playoffs’ Biggest Wild Card

With 20 seconds left in Game 3 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, the series tied 1-1 and the Bucks leading 101-100, point guard Jrue Holiday kept the ball for himself, spun into the paint and hit a floater. Zero passes, 2 points and a series lead.

Then in Game 4, the Bucks threw their lowest pass total of the regular season or playoffs. Holiday took three shots on half-court possessions that involved zero passes, yet he didn’t score any points, and the Bucks would lose.

Milwaukee’s playoff run is proof positive that offense predicated on minimal ball movement is a double-edged sword. During last year’s championship run, the Bucks ran the second-most half-court possessions per game that used zero or one pass, per Second Spectrum. They followed that up this regular season by leading the league in such plays while ranking third in efficiency on them. The Bucks have long succeeded with an inert offensive approach. But despite Holiday’s success to end Game 3, the approach has been letting Milwaukee down so far in the playoffs.

The Bucks have struggled to convert on low-pass possessions

Per-game frequency and efficiency by possession type for the Milwaukee Bucks offense during the 2021-22 regular season vs. postseason

Regular season Postseason
Possession type # Poss. Points # Poss. Points
Half-court, zero or one pass 29.049 1.186 30.333 0.963
Half-court, at least two passes 64.354 1.132 61.667 1.068
Transition 13.610 1.326 13.222 1.361

Through Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Source: Second Spectrum

Milwaukee is the least efficient team of the playoffs in zero- or one-pass half-court possessions, and in many ways, this is the root of the Bucks’ offensive struggles. They made the fewest passes per game in the regular season and are averaging more than 16 fewer passes per game in the playoffs. The ball moves slowly, but the pace is anything but. In the regular season, Milwaukee had the second-fastest average half-court possession, while in the playoffs its half-court possessions have been the fastest — even faster than during the regular season. But though the process is the same, the results are not.

Last playoffs, Milwaukee had an offensive rating of 112.2, 11th-best of the postseason. This regular season, it was 114.3, third-highest in the league. But so far in the playoffs, Milwaukee’s offensive rating has dropped to 104.9, third-lowest in the postseason. Two of its five worst half-court performances of the entire season have come in the playoffs. 

One reason the Bucks pass so little in the half-court is they don’t need to to create advantages. The foundation relies on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is so versatile that he can either bulldoze his way to the rim without passing or collapse the defense for an easy triple one pass away; Antetokounmpo led the league in shot attempts at the rim in the regular season, making almost three-quarters of them, and he was second in the league in assists per game from the paint for 3-pointers, per Second Spectrum.1 It’s simplistic to boil Milwaukee’s offense down to Antetokounmpo’s unique ability to create layups or threes without a whole lot of passing, but in many ways, Milwaukee’s offense is simplistic as a result of his skills. 

Some of the Bucks’ struggle to replicate their success in simplicity is due to the absence of Khris Middleton, who is currently out with an MCL sprain. In the regular season, Milwaukee’s offensive rating was 6.3 points higher with Middleton on the floor than with him off it. He was Antetokounmpo’s most frequent pick-and-roll partner as a ball-handler in the regular season, and he threw the most passes to Milwaukee’s superstar that found him in the paint.

Yet there is more to Milwaukee’s offensive collapse than Middleton’s absence. In the regular season, the Bucks had a slightly higher offensive rating with Holiday and Antetokounmpo on the court and Middleton off than with all three of them playing together. And in the playoffs, Antetokounmpo has shot more frequently at the rim and thrown passes from the paint to behind the arc more often. So losing Middleton hurts, but the Bucks have succeeded playing their preferred style without him before.

Antetokounmpo has found the series more difficult than his per-game box-score numbers of 32.0 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists may suggest. He’s shooting 43.9 percent from the field after shooting 55.3 percent during the regular season, and he’s making just 39.6 percent of his shots from the key compared with 55.6 percent in the regular season. His struggles can’t be separated from Boston’s success, with Al Horford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams III forcing him into tougher shots. Sometimes he’s been defended by two or even three Celtics at once. That he’s still averaging so many points in the series is a mark of excellence, not failure. But so far in the postseason, Antetokounmpo’s spectacular performances have not translated to teamwide offensive success.

In the regular season, including only plays on which the ball-handler shot, Holiday enjoyed Milwaukee’s three most efficient actions — the post-up, isolation and pick and roll;2 he scored more than 1.1 points per chance in each situation. His efficiency when shooting out of all three actions has plummeted in the series to below 0.7 points per chance. Similarly, the team is shooting worse from deep in the playoffs, with centers Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis as well as Holiday and Antetokounmpo experiencing steep declines from the regular season.

In Game 3, Milwaukee had its highest frequency of zero- or one-pass possessions in the half-court to date in the postseason and its second-lowest efficiency, scoring 29 points on 37 possessions, per Second Spectrum. Yet a 42-point explosion from Antetokounmpo — buoyed by his most efficient driving game of the series — carried Milwaukee past the finish line. He can skirt around defenders like a hummingbird or blast through them like a cannonball, and he’s almost unstoppable because defenders don’t know which approach he’ll take.

The Bucks had as many zero- or one-pass possessions in Game 4 as they did Game 3, and they scored a more acceptable 37 points on those 37 possessions. But not even Antetokounmpo’s success there was enough. Holiday had his worst shooting performance of the 2022 playoffs, going 5-for-22. The four players who have been struggling beyond the arc — Holiday, Antetokounmpo, Lopez and Portis — combined to shoot 1-for-12 from deep. And the Celtics finally had a hot-scoring game of their own. 

Still, there were some positive signs within Milwaukee’s loss. The Bucks have developed some workarounds to their offensive struggles in the half-court. The most effective one during this series has been the empty-side pick and roll — and specifically, the version involving Antetokounmpo as either the ball-handler or screener.

Like so many other teams today, the Celtics prefer to switch pick and rolls if they can,3 and that strategy has been quite effective for them. Employing it on this action, though, has often resulted in Antetokounmpo having a huge size-and-strength mismatch, with an entire side of the floor cleared out for him to isolate in space. And that’s resulted in some high-quality looks. On the 18 empty-side ball screens Milwaukee has set for Antetokounmpo that the Celtics have switched, the Bucks have an expected effective field-goal percentage of 57 percent — a figure that would have led the league by nearly 1.5 percentage points this season. (And their actual conversion rate is considerably higher, at 65 percent.)

The empty-side pick and roll has also worked for the Bucks when Antetokounmpo has been the screener, though for different reasons. Boston hasn’t been as clear about how it wants to defend that action, and some of the miscommunication between defenders has resulted in high-quality looks. It’s specifically been effective for Holiday: He’s scored 12 points on nine empty-side pick and rolls with Antetokounmpo as the screener, according to Second Spectrum.

Of course, not having to score against a set defense is better than having to find a workaround to do so, and Milwaukee has cheated its way out of the strict confines of half-court play in the form of transition attempts and offensive rebounds. In many ways, those half-measure solutions have determined Milwaukee’s wins more than half-court performance. The Bucks scored 28 transition points in Game 1 and 21 in Game 3, the second- and sixth-highest single-game totals  so far in the playoffs. They also scored 19 and 11 second-chance points in those games. All told, 46.5 percent of Milwaukee’s points came in transition or after offensive rebounds in Game 1 and 31.1 percent in Game 3. Those marks were 17.4 percent and 23.1 in the losses in Games 2 and 4, respectively. As Milwaukee’s solutions have coalesced in its wins, so too have their absences been typical of the losses. Simply scoring better in the half-court would be a more tenable solution.

It’s debatable whether workarounds will be enough for the Bucks to repeat as champions. First-shot half-court offensive success in the playoffs is a key signifier of champions. Since 2004, when Cleaning the Glass’s database begins, only one title winner has scored fewer points per 100 half-court plays than these Bucks, and no champion has ranked as poorly relative to its peers.

Champs don’t usually score as few points in the half-court

Points per 100 half-court plays in the playoffs, and rank among playoff teams, for the 2021-22 Milwaukee Bucks vs. NBA champions since 2004

Year Team Points Rank
2022 Milwaukee Bucks 88.2
15
2021 Milwaukee Bucks 94.8
12
2020 Los Angeles Lakers 101.3
3
2019 Toronto Raptors 95.8
5
2018 Golden State Warriors 101.3
1
2017 Golden State Warriors 106.2
2
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers 97.6
2
2015 Golden State Warriors 90.5
5
2014 San Antonio Spurs 98.1
2
2013 Miami Heat 91.5
2
2012 Miami Heat 89.0
3
2011 Dallas Mavericks 95.1
1
2010 Los Angeles Lakers 93.5
5
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 90.2
8
2008 Boston Celtics 90.4
6
2007 San Antonio Spurs 92.5
2
2006 Miami Heat 89.9
6
2005 San Antonio Spurs 90.1
6
2004 Detroit Pistons 78.6
10

Through games of May 9, 2022. Excluding garbage time.

Source: Cleaning the Glass

At least the Bucks do have an historical predecessor from whom they might find similar paths to success: themselves, last season. The Bucks were below average offensively in the half-court in last year’s playoffs, yet they won behind their playoff-best defensive rating of 106.8. During this playoff run, their defensive rating has been 99.4. The Bucks may have regressed offensively, but their defense has been so formidable that it might not matter.

Still, the Bucks are toeing a fine line. During their championship run, they could rely on low-ball-movement offense to churn the scoreboard in their favor. Despite slap-dash solutions in transition and second-chance points, that pillar of their offensive identity has carried less weight this postseason. Antetokounmpo’s drives and empty-side pick and rolls are steps in the right direction, but even despite his brilliance, Milwaukee’s half-court offense remains stuck in the mud. The series is tied 2-2 as a result. 

To repeat as champions, the Bucks will have to improve their half-court offense. For Milwaukee, that probably means scoring more efficiently without flurries of ball movement.  

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among players with at least 50 games played.

  2. Among ball-handlers with 50 or more shots out of individual actions.

  3. They had a 48 percent switch rate during the regular season, per Second Spectrum, and that figure is up to 59 percent in the playoffs.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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