Coming into the game having lost four straight, the Milwaukee Bucks had a prime opportunity to take advantage of the injury-plagued Miami Heat after dropping last night’s contest against the Orlando Magic. Either opportunity never knocked or the Bucks had the AC cranked to full with their headphones on while running the shower, because Milwaukee lost badly to Miami, falling 109-97.
As we’ve grown accustomed to, Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way with 24 points (8/19 FG, 2/5 3pt) / 10 rebounds / 3 assists / 2 steals, and effectively served as the team’s only threat to score. Matthew Dellavedova returned to the starting lineup with an extra hop in his step and contributed 15 points / 7 assists, and Jabari Parker came off the bench (missing the entire first quarter due to an infraction of “team rules,” which was likely related to his comments about a team meeting after last night’s loss) to contribute 16 points (albeit on 18 shots) / 7 rebounds / 4 assists.
The Heat shook off a slow start and commanded a healthy lead for most of the contest. Dion Waiters scored a game-high 33 points (12/19 FG, 5/8 3pt), and was supported by Goran Dragić (25 points on 8/13 FG, 3/5 3pt / 6 assists), Hassan Whiteside (16 points / 15 rebounds / 2 blocks), and Wayne Ellington (15 points, 3/9 3pt). As a team, Miami dramatically outpaced Milwaukee from behind the arc, hitting 13 out of 30 attempts to the Bucks’ paltry 6 makes on 18 shots.
For any fans expecting the team to come out strong against the lowly Heat, the opening performance likely failed to meet expectations. With the starting lineup swapping Delly for Malcolm Brogdon, and Thon Maker for Jabari, the seeds were sown for Jason Kidd’s effort-heavy blitz-everything defense to put Miami’s offense on ice. For a while, it worked, but both teams struggled to get going (Bucks led 11-6 after six minutes).
As an aside, big ups to Thon Maker (6 points on 1/3 FG, 1/2 3pt), who easily had his best game in his first NBA start, playing 18 minutes of high-effort defense and all-over-the-place offense. He made a number of silly mistakes and often looked out of position, but his tenacity also forced Miami into missed shots and turnovers, and earned him a team-high +7 on the night.
Once Thon left the game with 6:15 left in the first quarter, so did the frantic defensive energy he brought with him. It might have been ugly basketball on both sides, but at least Milwaukee was on the right side of things (as has been the case for the starters lately). The Heat promptly took the lead on an 8-0 run, and the Bucks broke it by calling an unstoppable play: Michael Beasley isolated in the deep left corner, who drove and luckily drew a foul call.
The Bucks have attracted a lot of scorn over this five-game losing streak, and tonight’s first half was an embodiment of every criticism Jason Kidd’s gameplans have drawn since arriving in Milwaukee. On offense, the team aggressively attacked the rim, while avoiding the three-point line with a similar intensity (a paltry 18 attempts on the night, but only 5 in the first half). On defense, the ball was one step (or more) ahead of each Milwaukee defender, finding its way into the hands of an open Miami shooter entirely too often.
Everybody likes Game of Thrones, right? Well, if the Bucks were a big-shot Westerosi house and were drawing up plans to take an enemy fortress, it seems that the strategy would be hurling their forces into the fray and using battering rams to break down the gates...even though a couple of catapults could be just as (if not more) effective. And if their castle was about to be stormed by an intruding army, Milwaukee’s castle guard would be amazingly responsive to the first alarm at one gate...leaving the other gates unoccupied and unbarred.
Medieval warfare analogies aside, I would guess that things are not fine and dandy in the Milwaukee locker room. Yesterday’s team meeting didn’t seem to have any immediate effect; Jabari Parker continually found himself as the broken link in Milwaukee’s defensive chain, and his frustration was visible at times. But even beyond Jabari’s well-documented struggles, the Bucks appear to have a shortage of players who consistently hustle and refuse to give up even when they should. Honestly, the three players who demonstrate this quality are Giannis, Delly, and Thon, with Brogdon and Tony Snell as honorable mentions. I don't doubt that Jabari Parker would be on that list if he were in a better position often enough, but that simply hasn’t been the case.
“Energy and effort” are mainstays in Jason Kidd’s coachspeak vocabulary, and have become contentious terms around Bucks Nation, as some fans choose to assign responsibility for the team’s struggles to the coaching staff instead of the players. This is especially true for the defense, where much of the conversation has revolved around the scheme simply generating too high of a risk (allowing open threes) for what may be not high-enough of a reward (forcing shots later into the possession and generating turnovers). Effort and energy are prerequisites for any professional athlete, but especially for an NBA player tasked with participating in Coach Kidd’s frenetic system. To put it bluntly: if you don’t try hard, the system won’t work. An equally-blunt counterargument: If the system doesn’t work, trying hard is irrelevant.
Tonight’s loss against the Heat contained symptoms of both hypothetical root causes. The Bucks allowed a ton of open threes because it requires defenders to be in bad positions to recover. The Bucks also allowed a ton of open threes because defenders failed to execute and conceded the shot as a result. On some possessions, both happened.
On a personal note, I am still very much an optimist when it comes to the Milwaukee Bucks’ long-term prospects, and I would even go so far as to defend the scheme that has come under fire from fans. And before you can say it, yes I know that the term “foolish optimist” is reserved for people just like me, thank you.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge the inherent weaknesses of the scheme, or that I don’t want the conversation about the defense to continue. All that said, witnessing those weaknesses be exploited time and time again, without any meaningful adjustments, is incredibly frustrating to watch. I would love to have my optimism be proven right someday (maybe after Khris Middleton returns and is 100%? Maybe next season?) but even my patience is being tested. Until then, we have to hope that the “effort and energy” that the scheme requires changes for the better...or that something else changes instead.
The Bucks have tomorrow off and travel back to Milwaukee, getting ready to host the Houston Rockets and their 40 three-point attempts per game (oh, joy...) on Monday night.