In case you hadn’t heard, the Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Philadelphia 76ers yesterday, dropping a 7-foot tall lump of coal into our collective green and cream stockings. It was disheartening, frustrating, demoralizing, whatever term you want to apply, it was a tough way to go out in your first matchup against a team many picked to leapfrog Milwaukee en route to the NBA Finals this year. There are myriad ways to approach a loss like this, but it’s pretty simple to fall into two two camps: doom-and-gloom or a teaching tool. I’m going to fall into the latter. With the Bucks aspirations this year, what is the regular season but a testing ground for what may work when the minutes actually matter.
Now, there are certainly ways to quibble with the idea of a “testing ground,” particularly given Bud’s predilection to lean on his pet favorites than picking someone from the back of the classroom. But, that doesn’t mean there weren’t things we can’t take away from yesterday’s game to prod past labeling it merely an outlier performance.
The Sixers Short-Circuited Giannis
Who knows what would’ve happened had Giannis Antetokounmpo had one of his early triples fall against Philadelphia, but they didn’t, and he seemed hesitant from there on out. Not hesitant to shoot necessarily, his 27 attempts tied for the second most he’s had all year, but hesitant to capitalize on the space Philly was more than happy to afford him. Brett Brown didn’t trust Giannis could put them away launching from deep, and the gambit paid off with an 0-7 performance from Milwaukee’s leader. On one possession, Embiid was practically at the restricted area defensively, giving Giannis a king-sized cushion and letting him rely on jumpers. Now, we’ve seen Giannis miss triples before, and typically he’s still able to make opponents pay down low. Yesterday, Philadelphia, and Embiid in particular, had his number.
His strength was mitigated against Embiid’s bulky frame, and Philly’s 7-footer was quite adept at stripping Giannis down low or obstructing his shot. Giannis, he of the reigning paint king, shot just 6/12 in the restricted area, and the push shot he’s been honing this year went 0-5 in the paint outside the restricted area. That’s 6/17 (35.2%) for those counting at home, well off his 65.5% for the season with those two regions combined. Some of those shots will likely fall in future games, but there was no doubting the fact Embiid provided a formidable one-man wall with fellow Sixers helping in to slap at Giannis on his drives. While he still notched seven assists, the Bucks offense couldn’t find any semblance of rhythm with their engine sputtering all game. That leads to stuff like Pat Connaughton taking it upon himself to play iso-ball against Joel Embiid. The NBA.com/stats video pages aren’t working for the game right now, or I’d share that play below. Perhaps that’s fitting.
A Tale of Two Three-Point Shooting Games
I don’t care as much about the Philadelphia 76ers historic 3-point shooting performance. Going 21-44 (47.7%) isn’t sustainable, it is an outlier, but that’s also the type of dismissive thinking that can make it much harder to adapt when unsustainable shooting suddenly happens four times in a row, and your team is sitting at home come June. So, let’s consider volume instead, which is always a more valid approach to dissecting 3-point shooting regardless.
For the season, the Sixers rank 25th in terms of percentage of shots that come from three, just 31.9%. Yesterday, they made up 43% of their shot diet. Part of that could be the psychology of them going in early. When it rains it pours. More realistically though, it has to do with pinpointing Milwaukee’s defensive weakness, and adapting their play style to exploit it. Their shooters were ready and willing to fire the whole game, and they delivered. They didn’t sacrifice midrange shots, they sacrificed shots at the rim knowing full well that’s where Milwaukee makes its bones. Again, the Bucks were successful there, holding the Sixers to just 50% shooting at the rim. Normally, Philly shoots 64.6% down there.
Overall, this trade-off hasn’t meant Milwaukee’s defense has suffered. They’ve been the stingiest in the league, and they’re not unique in allowing three pointers among the defensive elite. Toronto is the only team that allows more wide open (closest defender 6+ feet) threes than the Bucks, but they’re still a top-five defensive team for the season. Yesterday, Milwaukee allowed a much higher volume of wide-open triples to Philadelphia (28) than their season average (19.2). In that respect, it’s not all that surprising shot so much better than one would expect, as they went 42.9% on those attempts, +4.5% from Milwaukee’s season average for opponents on those shots. That’s sustainable; the only real unsustainable figure is Philly’s 66.7% (8/12) on open threes (closest defender 4-6 feet), well off opponents usual 38.2% on those shots against the Bucks.
Now, the high opponent volume will likely be a staple of the Bucks’ defense all year, I’m not sure there’s much they can do to counteract it besides experimenting with a bit more switching and being significantly better at recovering to opponents to run them off the line. Clearly, that wasn’t happening against Philadelphia. Personally, I was more concerned by the Bucks inability, or unwillingness to shoot threes at their usual clip. Sure, by the end, they had 33 attempts, but some of those came in garbage time as Khris Middleton poured them in. The Bucks were having a decent night inside and ended up outscoring Philadelphia by 20 in the paint, but that couldn’t make up for their deficit from the 3-point arc. The Bucks shot their fourth highest percentage of shots from the midrange for the season. That was a concern coming in given Philly allows the lowest percentage of opponent three-point attempts for the year. That manifested itself acutely all game. It could be tied to the last point I want to touch on too.
Beware the Pace of Play
Philadelphia made Milwaukee play at their pace, plain and simple. The Bucks play the quickest in the league (104.1 per BBall Ref), and the Christmas contest was played at a 98.1 pace, much closer to Philly’s 99.7 figure. The game slowed down and Milwaukee was forced into far more halfcourt sets than they’ve played all year. There was no sequence of quick outlet passes in a row leading to a dunk, then a three-pointer, another layup. Those flashes of lightning have been how Milwaukee has buried teams this year, but they were nowhere to be found in this one. The Bucks play in the halfcourt less than any other team in the league (76.1% of their plays), but yesterday it was Philly who was playing like Bud’s bombing brigade rather than the other way around. Philly’s halfcourt plays were just 75.1%, while Milwaukee’s made up 84.3% of their plays, higher than Utah’s league-leading mark of 83.4%.
Now, Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense wasn’t abysmal yesterday. In fact, it was nearly even with Philly’s points/play mark, rather impressive given the fact it made up a higher percentage of their plays. But, the Bucks thrive on their transition game. They run it more than any other team in the league, especially off live boards, of which they had fewer yesterday with their poor defensive rebounding effort. It was a Rube Goldberg machine at points, the Sixers were hitting quick triples, when they missed they got more offensive rebounds than usual, the Bucks engine was missing at the rim and occasionally falling to the ground, making it harder for him to get back defensively and for Milwaukee’s stingy halfcourt defense to get set.
The dominoes started tipping and the whole design fell apart. It’s up to Bud to find fitting counters in the months ahead. Yesterday hurt. Let’s hope they don’t just use a band-aid to fix the issue.