With 32 games remaining in the 2018-19 season, the Milwaukee Bucks are on pace for 60 wins. Even better, they have a 30.6 percent chance to win the NBA Title according to ESPN’s BPI playoff odds. Those are two forecasts that were unfathomable just one year ago.
Just last January, the Bucks were fresh off firing their head coach Jason Kidd and had announced Joe Prunty as his interim successor. Milwaukee was in complete disarray. They looked to be wasting an all-time talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo and didn’t have a coaching staff who knew how to maximize the Greek Freak and his abilities.
My, how times have changed.
When the Bucks brought in Mike Budenholzer to be the head coach, he entered the premises with a plan in hand. We all know about the Bucks huge uptick in three-point shots, an increase that’s seen Milwaukee up their three-point attempts per 100 possessions from 25.2 last season to 36.4 this year. Even though the rest of the NBA has increased the number of their outside attempts, Milwaukee has taken it to a whole new level.
Budenholzer installed a five out offense in order to emphasize the spacing he expects from his players. The blue tape he put on the practice floor leading up to the season became famous and the Bucks have stuck with the principles ever since:
New addition to the Bucks practice floor: Five blue squares on each half of the floor. pic.twitter.com/rHeuR6rwG1— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) September 25, 2018
The blue practice tape Budenholzer put up is already paying off in transition for the Bucks: pic.twitter.com/F33vCpNi1l— Bucks Film Room (@BucksFilmRoom) October 22, 2018
However, the blue tape wasn’t just for spacing, it also helped emphasize the pace Budenholzer wanted his team to play with. In order to maximize Antetokounmpo’s spectacular skills as a seven-foot playmaker, Budenholzer encourages his team to get out and run at every turn.
By running to the spots outlined by the tape, the Bucks ensured the fast break ball-handler had optimal room to work with. This premiere spacing has put the Bucks in the best positions to succeed, especially when the pace is maximized. They rank sixth in the NBA in fast break points per game at 17.0. That’s a nice increase from the 14.6 points they averaged last season.
As soon as Brogdon grabs the swatted shot, he immediately brings the ball up the floor. Notice the precise spacing his teammates have as they run alongside him: Antetokounmpo heads to the strong side corner, Bledsoe cuts to the opposite one and Snell places himself on the weak side wing. This causes some confusion for the Pistons as they fail to follow the first principle of defense; stop the ball. Brogdon kindly and casually pulls-up and drains a three from the top of the key. Yak Yak.
All season long, Budenholzer has preached to push the pace at every turn. His guys are listening, as Milwaukee runs in transition 20.8 percent of the time (second in the NBA according to Synergy). However, not only are the Bucks getting out, but more importantly, they are finishing those opportunities. Their 1291 points in transition is third-most in the league.
Following another blocked shot by Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo catches the ball off the backboard and pushes the pace in a furious manner. Middleton and Brogdon space alongside him, as the trio of teammates perform the three-on-two drill to perfection. As Middleton takes away a defender by stopping at the three-point line, Antetokounmpo gives the ball up to Brogdon who drops it back off to the Greek Freak after drawing the ire of Blake Griffin.
In order for the Bucks to play in this manner, they must do two specific things well: 1. Play defense without fouling and 2. Gather defensive rebounds. These are two areas the Bucks famously struggled at under Jason Kidd.
Milwaukee fouled more than 25 other teams in 2017-18 and averaged 21.8 fouls per game. This year that number is down two fouls per game at 19.6 which is the fifth-fewest in the league. The increase in legal defense has provided the Bucks with even more opportunities, as it’s hard to get out and run when your opponent is constantly shooting from the free throw line in dead ball situations.
Defensive rebounding was even worse. The Bucks ranked 28th in the NBA in 2017-18 by only grabbing 31.5 defensive boards per game. The addition of Lopez has been huge in this department. Even though he only corrals 11.8 percent of defensive rebounds himself, he ranks third in the NBA with 8.1 box outs per game. His ability to neutralize the other team’s best rebounder has allowed Milwaukee to grab the rebound and go. All four starters (Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Brogdon and Bledsoe) who play alongside Lopez are averaging a career-high in rebounds per 36 minutes this season.
Budenholzer also trusts a number of his players to bring the ball up the floor and start the break. By allowing four of the five guys on the court the ability to dribble the ball up the court, it saves the Bucks precious seconds the defense might otherwise be using to get set.
At the very beginning of this clip, Ersan Ilyasova comes away with the rebound. In this scenario, he’s the only guy on the court who isn’t allowed to bring the ball up the floor. This means he has four teammates spread out on the court that he can outlet to. He ends up going with Bledsoe, as he’s the one in his direct line of vision.
When Bledsoe quickly receives the outlet pass, the other four Bucks run up the court with him. Because of how fast everything happened, the Golden State Warriors are unable to get back and get set on defense. This allows Bledsoe to use a nice change of pace and a crossover dribble to beat his man and lay the ball unchallenged into the hoop.
Milwaukee has the perfect blend of players to continue pushing the pace. Guys like Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe are athletic freaks and can exploit one-on-one matchups with a defender who is furiously backpedaling. Around them, there are shooters such as Lopez, Middleton, Brogdon, and Sterling Brown who force the defense to choose between giving up a layup or a wide-open three. That’s a difficult decision to make especially in a high-pressure situation.
Budenholzer instills the ultimate confidence in his players. His undying support is greatly appreciated. He’s constantly encouraging them to shoot the ball and to get out and run. Hopefully, the Bucks will run right to the NBA Finals.