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Milwaukee Bucks Five Observations, Including Defensive Priorities

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Examining the Milwaukee Bucks’ defensive priorities, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s (potential) signature move, and three other observations.

Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers Photo by AJ Mast/NBAE via Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks capped off a historic month by going 15-1 in November, including winning 11 in a row. Here are three takeaways from last week’s 4-0 slate:

ATOs (After Time-Outs)

I’ve previously written about the Bucks’ sloppiness after timeouts in this column, but I’d like to give credit where credit is due. Milwaukee hasn’t reached their 2018-19 level in these situations, but they had a couple of beauts last week.

The first set came in the third quarter against the pesky Utah Jazz.

The Bucks and Jazz were exchanging body blows, but just when Milwaukee thought they were closing the gap Utah extended their lead back to nine. In order to refocus his team and ensure a solid possession Mike Budenholzer called a timeout.

The play he drew up targeted Wes Matthews who had already made two threes to start the period:

It began with Eric Bledsoe bringing the ball up the floor and dropping it off to Donte DiVincenzo at the top of the key before Iverson cutting to the weakside of the floor. With only DiVincenzo and Giannis Antetokounmpo remaining on the left side they go into a two man game of sorts:

DiVincenzo hits Antetokounmpo at the elbow and follows his pass to the paint. It now appears to be an isolation for the Greek Freak and that’s exactly what Budenholzer wants. With the opponent’s attention on the ball, Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe and Brook Lopez are getting into position to set a stagger screen for Matthews:

The play works to perfection, as Matthews’ defender gets caught up on the double-picks and Matthews is wide open at the top of the key for his third three in four minutes. Yak Yak!

ATOs don’t just refer to sets that are drawn up after timeouts. They can also be applied to the beginning of games, quarters or any time a coach has a chance to draw up a play:

Budenholzer devised a banger to tip-off the action against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It began with some simple ball movement designed to get the defense moving. Bledsoe hits DiVincenzo on the wing who dekes to the post before pushing it back to his point guard.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo has gotten into position for an old-fashioned pick-and-roll with Bledsoe. With the other three players spread along the perimeter, Antetokounmpo trots uncontested down the middle of the lane. At least, uncontested until he catches the pocket pass, takes two steps and yams on Kevin Love’s face.

Ersan Ilyasova’s On/Off Debacle

The Bucks own the best net rating (10.3) in the entire NBA which, in its simplest form, means they outscore opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions. Only one other team not named the Golden State Warriors have owned a better net rating over the course of a season since 2013-14 according to Cleaning the Glass. We’re only a quarter of the way there, but that’s an impressive start.

That makes it eye-popping when a regular contributor such as Ersan Ilyasova is in such a deep on/off hole. Ilyasova has played the ninth-most minutes on the team, yet, the Bucks point-differential is -18.7 when he’s on the court compared to when he’s on the bench. Only six players have worse differentials for their respective teams.

The main issue appears to be the defensive end of the court where the Bucks bleed points. However, they aren’t much better on offense either.

He doesn’t deserve all the blame. He rarely shares the court with Antetokounmpo and spends a lot of his time with one-to-two starters max. His minutes are basically designed to break even with the opponents. But the lineups he’s in have even struggled to do that.

George Hill’s Above-The-Break Threes

With defenses focused on taking away shots at the rim, the Bucks are willingly wooed into bombing from the outside. This includes above-the-break threes, where they’ve taken more than 26 other teams. Unfortunately, taking a ton of shots doesn’t mean you make them. They rank 23rd in above-the-break three-point percentage.

Perhaps, the lone exception is George Hill. The veteran carried his postseason success into the early part of this year. He’s a sharpshooter from the outside and should only be left alone at your own peril.

Among players to take at least 40 such shots this season, Hill ranks fifth by knocking down 46.3 percent. He’s a weapon for the Bucks and they treat him as such, often allowing him to anchor their second units and create for himself and others. Milwaukee needs this energy all season long.

Antetokounmpo’s Signature Move(s)?

Every great had a signature move they could rely on to create shots in tough situations. Michael Jordan’s turnaround fade, Allen Iverson’s crossover, Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway, Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake, Kareem’s skyhook...you get the point.

Just shy of his 25th birthday, Antetokounmpo hasn’t found his yet. It’s maybe the one feature that separates him from the all-time elites.

Eternally working on his game, he’s flashed a couple of moves that could fall into this category in the future:

This turnaround fade has been patented before, but it doesn’t mean the Greek Freak can’t put his own flavor on it. Given his strength, size and wingspan, this move would be nearly unguardable if he can perfect it.

Opponents are very worried about Antetokounmpo backing them down and getting all the way to the rim. They often body up and prepare for the contact. A spin and fade going the opposite direction would throw them off balance and give Antetokounmpo an extra half-second for separation. He can then use his height to shoot over the remaining attempt at a shot contest.

There’s another potential move as well. As we’ve seen in the past, perimeter-oriented players dominate the landscape. It’s crucial for stars to possess the ability to create their own shots without relying on their teammates to feed them in the post. That’s where this step-back comes into play:

Again, defenders are so worried about him getting to the basket it throws them off balance when he goes the opposite direction. Antetokounmpo uses that to his advantage (and a well-placed off hand) to create some separation with this step-back to his left.

Although he’s not quite there yet, this is a good start. Their will come a time in a critical game this season (or playoffs) when the Bucks need a tough basket from their MVP. He needs a signature move he can have confidence in to get the job done.

Defensive Priorities

At its core, Budenholzer has implemented a simple defensive strategy; don’t give up looks at the basket. Shots directly at the hoop yielded more than 1.20 points per possession from 2013-14 to 2017-18, higher than any other spot on the floor including threes. The math is simple.

It’s the reason for employing both Brook and Robin Lopez, the thought process behind the drop pick-and-roll coverage, Antetokounmpo’s assignments on defense, and many other decisions both the front office and Budenholzer make.

And they’re damn good at it. For the second straight season, they’re on pace to allow the fewest percentage of shots in the NBA within four feet of the rim. The last team to allow less than 30 percent (which they’re doing so far) was the 2010-11 Orlando Magic.

In order to prevent shots around the basket, Milwaukee must concede looks elsewhere. That includes the three-point line. The Bucks give up both the third-most threes and third-most wide open threes per game.

It’s not as if Budenholzer is happy to give his enemies shots behind the arc. A defense can only do so much. And first on the Bucks’ defensive totem pole is preventing dunks and layups.