The Milwaukee Bucks got off to a fast start against the Indiana Pacers in their final game before the All-Star break. They led by eight points after the first quarter and by as many as 13 in the second. Ultimately, they took that eight-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
However, basketball is a game of runs and the Pacers made theirs in the third quarter. Indiana used hot shooting and stifling defense to flip the table and take a three-point lead into the final period. They continued that hot streak and scored the first seven points of the fourth.
With the Bucks facing a 10-point deficit with 9:36 remaining, their largest of the game, Mike Budenholzer proved he will do something others have doubted all season long. He drastically altered his defensive scheme. Typically, the on-ball defender works like hell to fight over the ball-screen while the big man sinks into the lane in order to prevent a shot anywhere near the rim:
On the Pacers’ first offensive possession, Myles Turner set a pick for Darren Collison near the top of the key. Eric Bledsoe went over the top and furiously pursued the ball-handler in order to recover. Meanwhile, Brook Lopez sunk to the top of the restricted area in order to prevent Collison from getting a shot around the rim. As he did so, his man popped to the left wing. Collison probed just deep enough to the elbow before he shot a one-handed bounce pass back to Turner who promptly knocked down the three as Lopez plodded out to defend him.
Despite the obvious flaws in that scheme, it’s worked all season long for the Bucks. I mean, they don’t have the NBA’s top defensive rating for nothing.
However, Budenholzer needed to spark his team after the Pacers’ sharpshooting ripped them apart. In order to do so, he went colossal. No really. Budenholzer inserted a lineup that included Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That wasn’t all, however, as he also implemented a switching defense. The scheme was so effective, it limited Indiana to just 11 points over the final nine and a half minutes of the game. This included the Pacers shooting just 4-for-17 down the stretch and a putrid 1-for-8 over the last 4:42.
Following a step-back three by Tyreke Evans that put the Pacers up 86-76 with 9:37 remaining, Budenholzer promptly called a timeout. He used the break to enter his gargantuan lineup and to mix up his defense. Antetokounmpo scored a bucket out of the timeout which led us to our first sighting of this new defense:
Following some initial action, Domantas Sabonis set a pick for Tyreke Evans who was defended by Antetokounmpo. Instead of the Greek Freak fighting over the top of the screen, Lopez simply switched onto Evans. This gave the wing pause for just a second as he surveyed his new defender. With Lopez’s hand pestering Evan’s sight to the bucket, he crossed through his legs before he initiated a James Harden-lite step back. No surprise as it bricked off the front of the iron.
A few possessions later the Pacers were still searching for their first bucket against this new scheme. The Bucks had also cut the lead to three so the Pacers were beginning to feel the heat. At the very start of the video, Khris Middelton’s man back-doored to the hoop which caused Lopez to jump it and switch onto him. Middleton’s new man, Sabonis, then set a ball screen for Evans and another switch occurred. This time, Antetokounmpo was matched up with Sabonis in the post.
One way to attack this scheme is to take advantage of individual mismatches following the switch. Even though Antetokounmpo vs Sabonis doesn’t quite fall into this category, Sabonis still got the job done. He boldly backed the Greek Freak down and hit a tough lefty hook which temporarily put the Bucks’ onslaught on hold.
Milwaukee’s offensive blitz continued, as their defense also racked up the stops. It’s impossible to take away everything in the NBA so sometimes you have to live with the lesser of two evils.
Lopez defended Cory Joseph following another switch and Brogdon found himself on the bull, Sabonis, down low. Joseph rightfully dumped it off to the post. With Lopez worried about Brogdon getting backed down into oblivion he quickly dug to force a kick out. Once that happened, Joseph had enough time to get off a clean look as Lopez lumbered toward him on his closeout. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good as the 36 percent three-point shooter missed an open look.
On the other end of the floor, Brogdon hit a shot to give the Bucks a two point lead. Pacers’ head coach Nate McMillan then called a timeout and countered the Bucks’ oversized lineup. He inserted Collison, Turner, Thaddeous Young and Bojan Bogdanovic back onto the floor in order to provide his team with more spacing and athleticism.
The very first play was a designed set in order to exploit the Bucks two slowest players in Ilyasova and Lopez:
Bogdanovic began the set deking a cross screen for Young. He then shot up to the top of the lane to catch the swing pass. This initiated the main action. Turner followed by coming from the block to set a ball screen for Bogdanovic and it forced Lopez to switch. Bogdanovic didn’t hesitate and got right to the rim, as he laid the ball off the backboard for two points with Lopez furiously trying to contest the shot.
The Pacers attacked this same matchup three times in a row including a minute and a half later:
As Bogdanovic initiated the play from the top of the key, Turner once again set a ball screen to force Lopez to switch. Instead of attacking right away, Bogdanovic back-pedaled, as he studied the matchup. Satisfied with what he was seeing, he penetrated with his right hand and drove straight to the rim. This time, Lopez was expecting it, as he turned and ran with Bogdanovic and swatted the shot off the backboard.
With the game tied at 95 a piece and three and a half minutes remaining, the Pacers were desperate for a bucket. They’d only scored nine points in the last six minutes and needed a spark offensively.
Fortunately for the Bucks, the Pacers were unable to find their way. Lopez once again found himself in a mismatch, as he defended Collison on the right wing. Splash Mountain showed some impressively nimble feet as he stayed with Collison and forced a traveling turnover. It’s this kind of lateral quickness and effort that could allow Lopez to stay on the court if the Bucks decide to switch everything.
Despite the success with this versatile defense, don’t expect Budenholzer to rely too heavily on it. He’s shown the willingness to draw it up when needed, but no more and no less. He continues to strongly believe in drop coverage as his main source of pick-and-roll defense. And rightfully so.
As the Bucks continue down the path of establishing themselves as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, it’s games like these that will stand out. The Pacers thought they had the Bucks on the ropes, only for Milwaukee to throw the last punch. The Bucks have been able to take their game to another level all season long and this defensive versatility will only help down the stretch.
*All stats are according to Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted or linked.