After a one-week hiatus, spot up behind the arc for five observations about the Milwaukee Bucks:
The Bucks stretched their win streak to 18 games last week, but it wasn’t drama-free. Facing their biggest threat since November 10th, Milwaukee found themselves trailing the Memphis Grizzlies 83-93 with about 2:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Let’s rewind for a moment to figure out how they got there. Playing without Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, Memphis relied on a heavy dose of Jaren Jackson Jr, including Jackson chucking (and making) threes from anywhere and everywhere. With Giannis Antetokounmpo watching from the bench with foul trouble in the third quarter, Jackson took over and scored 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting from behind the arc. Yes, in the third quarter alone.
In the first 33 minutes and 30 seconds, the Grizzlies scored 93 points on 41.9 percent shooting. That’s when head coach Mike Budenholzer had enough, inserted Sterling Brown for Brook Lopez and altered his defensive scheme. Instead of continuing to get carved up in his drop pick-and-roll coverage, Bud called for his players to switch on-ball screens. And the results were magnificent.
The Grizzlies scored 93 points and shot 31-74(41.9%) in the first 33 min and 30 sec against the Bucks.— Bucks Film Room (Brian Sampson) (@BucksFilmRoom) December 15, 2019
In the last 14 min and 30 sec, Memphis only scored 21 points and shot 7-24 (29.2%).
The Bucks went to their switching defense down the stretch.
Milwaukee limited the Grizzlies to just two points on their final five possessions of the third quarter and promptly cut their lead in half, 95-90, heading into the final period. The Bucks continued to clamp down from there, holding them to just 19 points on 22 possessions over the final 12 minutes.
Following a switch after the initial inbounds action, D.J. Wilson (playing center in this lineup) finds himself matched up with De’Anthony Melton at the top of the key. After waiving away a ball screen from Jackson, Melton tries to take Wilson off the bounce. With the key word being “tries,” Wilson promptly cuts off the drive attempt and forces a wild floater that had no chance from the release.
Memphis’ possessions often looked like the above clip, as they struggled to get anything going over the last 14 minutes and 30 seconds, scoring only 21 points and shooting 29.2 percent. The Bucks don’t always play a switching defense, but when they do, they’re elite at it.
For the second time in two months, the Bucks will be without one of their primary weapons. After playing without Khris Middleton for seven games, Milwaukee is now forced to navigate the waters for two weeks without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, who was announced to be out with a right fibula evulsion fracture.
We got out first look at how that might go on Saturday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead of inserting George Hill into the starting lineup, Budenholzer elected to roll with Donte DiVincenzo who filled in admirably during Middleton’s absence.
With the lack of a true point guard on the floor for half the game (despite having some point guard tendencies DiVincenzo, is NOT a true point), Budenholzer relied on the myriad of other ball-handlers on his squad to get the job done.
He recruited the help of guys like Antetokounmpo, Middleton, DiVincenzo and Connaughton to initiate the offense at different times throughout the game. Bud trusts his secondary playmakers to bring enough to the table to help the team eat in the short-term, even if it’s not a sustainable plan over a long haul.
Speaking of playmaking, Middleton has been playing out of his mind since returning from his injury. He’s averaging 27.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6 assists per 36 minutes in the 10 games since he’s returned. Most impressively, he’s assisting on 23.6 percent of his team’s buckets while on the court during that span.
He’s been scorching hot from all over the court in the past 10 games. He knows it. The defense knows it. And he knows the defenses knows it. This has allowed him to leverage his hot shooting into creating easy buckets for teammates.
Middleton catches this pass just across half court and immediately recognizes a size mismatch with his defender. He quickly goes to work, bodying up his man and promptly getting into the paint. The defense can’t allow Middleton to post up so easily, prompting Tristan Thompson to abandon his man on the opposite block and help his teammate. It’s a catch-22 for Thompson, however, as his man receives the pass at point blank range and gently slams the ball through the hoop.
Middleton has been so good he even draws extra defensive attention in a two-man game with Antetokounmpo. After the Greek Freak’s first and second attempts to get to the hole go nowhere, he kicks it out to Middleton in the corner. With his defender out of position, the Bucks’ second star confidently dribbles baseline, drawing the scrutiny of two Grizzlies’ helpers, including Antetokounmpo’s primary defender. Middleton responds with a little no-look pocket pass to Antetokounmpo who throws it down on Bruno Caboclo’s “f*cking head.”
Perhaps, the best part about Middleton’s creations have been his understanding of the defense. Instead of forcing passes to his teammates, he’s simply taking what defenses are giving him.
Following a hand-off with Brook Lopez, Middleton is looking to penetrate the paint either via the dribble or the pass. However, the Orlando Magic effectively cut down that idea by packing the lane with four players-one of whom is helping off Antetokounmpo in order to stop the rolling Lopez. Instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, Middleton makes the smart play and hooks a one-handed pass to the weakside perimeter where the MVP shows off his catch-and-shoot skills.
Sometimes in life, we just have to appreciate the little things. We also have to nerd-out from time to time. Both of those reasons are why I’m drawing attention to this seemingly harmless play between George Hill and Robin Lopez.
With the Bucks smacking the New Orleans Pelicans in the first quarter, Budenholzer rolled out his all-bench lineup, a pretty normal occurrence at this juncture no matter the score.
Hill and Lopez go into pick-and-roll action on the left side of the court, with their three teammates providing space by aligning themselves on the weak side three-point line.
When Lopez sets the pick for Hill, his defender takes a step or two backward with the primary goal of preventing the ball-handler from getting all the way to the basket. Meanwhile, Hill’s defender tries to fight over the screen and gets hung up for a moment or two.
With the Bucks in a two-on-one advantage, Lopez’ man is tasked with defending both guys. However, he tries to cheat back to his assignment too soon which forces Hill to retaliate by taking another dribble toward the basket. The extra bounce forces the defender to realign his hips and get into a guarding position on the ball-handler. As soon as he does that, Hill rises and finds Lopez open for a powerful jam.
It’s small nuances like this that truly make the Bucks special. They have a bunch of high I.Q. players who understand how to make winning basketball plays. Although this goes down as a simple pick-and-roll, it’s the little things in life that matter.
The Week Ahead
A daunting week ahead for the Bucks became a little less so with the Dallas Mavericks loss of Luka Doncic. Doncic, who sprained his ankle over the weekend, won’t suit up on Monday night against Milwaukee. Regardless, their schedule is a difficult one, as they also face the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers with the Lakers and Pacers providing the
biggest only challenges.
This Lakers-Bucks game has continued to pick up steam as the Bucks have continued to pick up “Ws.” It features two of the three greatest players in today’s game, as well as the two top teams. What more could we ask for?
If the Bucks somehow survive the next nine days, including the Christmas Day showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers, their win streak will be up to 23 and there’s no saying how long it will go. However, that’s a big if.