NBA playoffs

What the Bucks must continue to do (and not do) to surpass the Nets

Joe Viray
What the Bucks must continue to do (and not do) to surpass the Nets

DUST-UP. Bucks forward PJ Tucker yells in the face of Nets star Kevin Durant in the third quarter of Game 3.

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The Bucks will take this slim victory, but their path toward a series win over the Nets is still littered with bumps and roadblocks

Down 2-0 and seemingly at their wits end, the Milwaukee Bucks needed to find ways to exploit a seemingly vulnerable Brooklyn Nets defense that ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season.

It wasn’t as if the Bucks were bereft of solid offensive options – far from it, actually. They have three capable shot creators and playmakers in Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They ranked 7th in non-garbage-time offensive efficiency and 5th in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) in the regular season.

Despite the offensive talent they possess and their proven efficiency during the regular season, the Bucks looked like deer in headlights to open the series. Perhaps the daunting task of stopping the most potent offense in the league had gotten into their heads. Perhaps tunnel vision had clouded their judgment, falling into the trap the Nets laid that fully realized the purpose of their switch-heavy scheme.

Whatever the case, the Bucks responded early in Game 3 with much better offensive cohesion in the first quarter. Stagnation was minimized in favor of purposeful offensive sets and principles – obviously a significant point of emphasis going into the game.

The Bucks’ cumulative offensive rating in Games 1 and 2 was an abysmal 97 points per 100 possessions. That cannot happen, not when the Nets – as admirable of an effort they’re displaying on the defensive end – present several low-hanging fruits for the Bucks to exploit.

Switching everything is bound to get you some unfavorable matchups, especially when not everyone on the team is capable of the requisite versatility that is the hallmark of an ideal switch-everything scheme. The Bucks know that – they’ve gone into heavy mismatch-hunting throughout these series.

That comes at the risk of stagnation. The Nets will take a well-defended, well-contested jumper – despite the disadvantage of a Kyrie Irving defending Middleton in an isolation possession – and live with the result, if it’ll serve to throw the Bucks’ offensive flow into disarray.

That is why the onus is on the Bucks to punish the Nets’ switching beyond the on-ball level. A mismatch will most certainly force help from somewhere, and that is where the Bucks must apply pressure. Ball movement is key in order to stretch the defense thin.

Watch the possession below. Middleton has a mismatch on Irving on the left slot due to a transition cross-match. It puts the entire Nets defense on heightened alert. A swing to Holiday and subsequent penetration puts even more pressure on the Nets’ string, culminating in an Antetokounmpo dive made possible by Joe Harris sagging off and practically gifting him a wide-open cutting lane.

Any offensive possession that obtains an Antetokounmpo dive cut is an excellent one – he scored 1.39 points per possession (PPP) on cuts during the regular season, a respectable 73rd percentile, per Synergy.

But take note – that comes with two caveats: that the Bucks don’t get baited into an isolation contest against a team that thrives in them, and that they move the ball and actively find holes in the defense. If they can’t find one, then they must create some for themselves.

Antetokounmpo is heavily relied upon as a ball handler in various situations. He did excellently in isolation possessions that included passes – 1.1 PPP, per Synergy. He did even better as the pick-and-roll ball handler that included passes – 1.23 PPP.

But while Antetokounmpo can get some excellent shots as the ball handler, and occasionally use his paint gravity to create perimeter looks for his teammates, opposing teams can scheme for such possessions.

The Bucks diversified Antetokounmpo’s role during their first round series against the Miami Heat. They used him more often as a screener for the likes of Holiday and Middleton; they ran inverted pick-and-rolls to force favorable matchups or to set Antetokounmpo loose on downhill drives; and they leveraged his ability to be an excellent off-ball roamer and cutter.

That diversification has largely disappeared against the Nets. It resurfaced during the early stages of Game 3 and sporadically reappeared thereafter, where the Bucks placed Antetokounmpo in more off-ball roles, mostly as a screener in the pick-and-roll.

Antetokounmpo scored 1.16 PPP as a pick-and-roll screener during the regular season, and is putting up 1.21 PPP on such possessions in the playoffs. Those are pretty darn efficient. The problem is that it’s not nearly as frequent – only 6% of his possessions were spent as the screener during the regular season, while only 7% of his possessions consist of such in these playoffs.

Possessions like this one must happen more often:

The Bucks can get plenty of value whenever they clear a side on pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-off (DHOs), like in the set play they run above. Antetokounmpo and Middleton occupy the strong side and run a DHO that forces Blake Griffin to defend in space. Nonexistent help from the empty corner leaves Griffin on an island, forcing him to foul Antetokounmpo and send him to the line.

With Griffin playing drop on Milwaukee screen-and-rolls (perhaps the only instance where the Nets do not switch, given that Antetokounmpo is involved in the action), it serves to free up mid-range looks for Middleton, who is more than capable of punishing a defense that gives him a window to pull-up.

When it comes to punishing drop defenses, however, the shoe is on the other foot. 

The Bucks placed an important emphasis on diversifying their defensive schemes, mixing in their base drop coverage with more switching and playing to the level of the screen during the regular season.

That was prevalent in the first round, and it played a huge part in their destruction of the Heat. But against the Nets – perhaps the worst team to be doing it against – the Bucks have switched back to drop-heavy looks when defending the pick-and-roll.

Drop coverage is heavily contingent on the on-ball defender’s ability to fight over screens and stay in front of his man. While the Bucks have defenders who are excellent screen navigators, the Nets’ elite offensive stars need just a tiny sliver of space to get their shots off and through the hoop.

Dropping back against a mid-range assassin such as Kevin Durant is practically gifting him points:

Which is why, with the game hanging in the balance, the Bucks made the long-awaited adjustment of stepping up to the level of ball screens against Durant, a move that paid dividends in the closing minutes of Game 3.

Plenty of credit must be given to PJ Tucker on the possession below – he sticks with Durant and fights over the staggered screens, then “ICEs” Durant – denying him the use of the initial screen from Bruce Brown and forcing him sideline – before Brown re-screens for Durant.

Upon the re-screen, Brook Lopez steps up to the level instead of dropping, forcing Durant to pass out to Harris. After receiving the hand-off from Harris, a trap once again forces Durant to give up the ball – the correct decision – to Harris, who has a wide-open mid-range look.

The Bucks played perhaps their best defensive possession of the series – and so far, their most crucial – and were still fortunate to have Harris miss a virtual practice shot.

Harris scored only 3 points and shot extremely poorly: 1-of-11 from the field and 1-of-7 on threes. Irving put up 22 on an inefficient 9-of-22 from the field and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc.

Even Durant was hounded by inefficiency. While he scored 30 points, he was made to bleed for them a bit more this time, shooting 11-of-28 overall and 3-of-8 on threes. Overall, the Nets shot just 36.2% from the field and 25% on threes. The Nets barrage that was expected to occur after the first quarter – especially after the Bucks’ offense ground to an extremely slow crawl – never materialized.

But the Nets are due for a massive regression to the mean. Chances are, those same open shots that Harris received will start falling in the next time around. Irving and Durant are both capable of deciding – almost on a whim – when to become efficient again, especially if the Bucks stubbornly continue to drop back against them on pick-and-rolls.

Meanwhile, the Bucks offense must continue to diversify and put pressure on the Nets’ precarious defense. Their first-quarter barrage – where they scored 30 points and put up an offensive rating of 111.1 – was the pinnacle of their offensive output. They scored only 56 points the rest of the way, and if it were not for timely stops and variance favoring the Bucks, the Nets could have easily had a commanding 3-0 series lead.

It all starts with Antetokounmpo, who had 33 points and 14 rebounds but took several ill-advised pull-up threes (1-of-8).

Middleton was the best offensive player for the Bucks, scoring 35 on 48/50/89 shooting splits, while also hauling down 15 boards. Consistency is the lingering question – can he maintain such a high level of play as the series progresses?

Holiday continues to struggle. While he scored the go-ahead bucket, he will need to be much better all throughout – scoring only 9 points on 4-of-14 shooting certainly won’t cut it.

The Bucks will take this win, but their path toward a series win over the Nets is still littered with bumps and roadblocks that need to be smoothened out. –