If you haven’t quite gotten into the groove of watching Milwaukee Bucks’ games yet, consider this article the “tl;dr” version of their first “week” of the regular season. I’ll go through five plays that may not have necessarily defined their 1-1 start, but are a part of larger themes throughout the first two games.
(Before we dive in, I caution you that two games is an extremely small sample size. We shouldn’t be making any sweeping generalizations after 2.4 percent of the regular season. Instead, these are just the first pieces to a (hopefully) eight-month long puzzle, and we should evaluate them as such.)
The Bucks love to get out and run and can do a lot of damage in the open court. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, in particular, are historically most dangerous on the run where they’re able to use their elite athleticism with the defense at a disadvantage. Milwaukee got bogged down at times in the first two games, but you could see when head coach Mike Budenholzer emphasized pace. One time in particular came at the beginning of the third quarter in their first game against the Houston Rockets.
With Milwaukee trailing by double digits, they needed a spark to get them back in the game. After grabbing the defensive rebound, Khris Middleton side-armed the ball to an anticipatory Antetokounmpo at the free throw line. Two dribbles later, the Greek Freak found the streaking Bledsoe for an and-one layup. The tone was set.
The Bucks were one of the best teams in transition last year, adding 4.1 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. After two games, they’re eclipsing that mark by adding 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, they’re averaging just about three more fast break points through two games than they did last season. Look for the Bucks to continue to set the pace.
Coming into the season, the big question around Antetokounmpo was about his jump shot. Would he take the next step and become a better three-point shooter? Would he develop a go-to move for late-game situations? Although both questions remain unanswered, it appears his ball-handling and playmaking skills have improved. How many 7-footers can do this?
Antetokounmpo has been slicing through defenses with little resistance and, if he can’t score himself, he’s finding teammates with regularity. After putting up a career-best 29.3 percent assist rate last year, a number that ranked in the 99th percentile among forwards according to Cleaning the Glass, he’s currently at 60 percent. His 1.50 assist to usage ratio is also in the stratosphere.
Those numbers are unsustainable, but it goes to show two things: 1. Antetokounmpo has taken strides in his vision and passing abilities. 2. Defenses are more focused than ever on the MVP and are constantly forcing him to get rid of the ball. That’s not to say he’s perfect, as he’s still sloppy with the ball at times and it leads to avoidable turnovers. However, the improvement could be there.
The Giannis To Kyle Korver Connection
Kyle Korver was brought in to be one of Antetokounmpo’s new toys this season. The 38-year-old three-point specialist is the best outside shooter to ever put on a Bucks’ uniform and it’s shown throughout the first two games. In just 33 minutes of play, he’s taken 12 three-point shots and made five of them. That’s exactly what they brought him to Milwaukee to do.
The most interesting development has been the end of quarter plays. On at least two occasions, Milwaukee has run a pick-and-pop with Antetokounmpo and Korver to end a quarter, and it’s been successful both times.
It’s a basic play that’s effective thanks to the gravity that each Antetokounmpo and Korver demand. It begins with the ball at the top of the key and the other four Bucks spread out along the baseline to provide ample room. With about eight seconds left on the clock, Korver comes running up from the block to set a ball screen. Antetokounmpo then probes the defense before whipping a pass to the popping Korver who drains the three at the top of the key. Yak Yak! Antetokounmpo still has a lot to learn about playing with Korver, but their connection is off to a great start.
Too Many Lapses
Although the offensive numbers have slipped from a year ago, the effort and execution on defense has drawn the ire of Budenholzer. Far too often his team has been out of position and it’s led to easy or uncontested buckets for their opponents. Thus was the case against Houston.
With Antetokounmpo at the free throw line, the Bucks would normally have a chance to set their defense following a miss or a make. Russell Westbrook has other plans. He rips down the defensive board and shoots up the right side of the court. As he’s doing so, two Rockets have spread to the opposite corners to provide Westbrook with as much room as possible. His open lane to the basket forces Pat Connaughton to step up and stop the drive. However, Westbrook simply delivers a one-arm pass to a waiting Eric Gordon in the weakside corner and the ball rattles home.
Despite having the best defense in 2018-19 according to defensive rating, this hasn’t been the same assignment steady team through two games. Even though they have a lot of continuity, their pieces have yet to play well for a whole game. Budenholzer addressed his concern about defense in the post-game press conference following the loss to the Miami Heat so expect it to be given ample attention moving forward.
Help The Helper
Milwaukee’s biggest struggle has come in defending the pick-and-roll. Although they’ve done a fine job on the ball-handler, they’ve had issues with the roll-man. According to Synergy’s play type data, they’re giving up the fourth-most possessions per game (10.5) to the roll man and allowing them to score the seventh-most (61.9%). And teams are exploiting it.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra ran some variation of this double ball-screen throughout the game and it was usually successful. Here, Goran Dragic receives picks from Duncan Robinson and Bad Adebayo with the former popping and the latter rolling. George Hill fights over the top of both screens like he’s taught and Broook Lopez drops into the lane to prevent a layup from Dragic. Unfortunately, Wesley Matthews doesn’t drop to take away the alley-oop, instead, electing to stay glued to the sharp-shooting Robinson.
Matthews isn’t the only Buck to have this issue in the first two games, as it’s happened to nearly every player. Both the Rockets and Heat have already targeted the pick-and-roll game and it will only continue until the Bucks prove they can defend it. Milwaukee wasn’t great at this last year, but they weren’t bad either. We’ll see how they adjust moving forward.