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Four Factors to Watch in the Bucks Pistons Series

Analyzing different trends to monitor in the games ahead

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever wondered where the “Four Factors” statistical basketball categories comes from on your favorite stats site, it stems from the mind of statistician Dean Oliver. Author of Basketball on Paper, Oliver is often credited for accelerating the advanced metrics in basketball. He spent time in front offices across the league, but his rudimentary answer to “How do teams win basketball games?” remains a stout baseline for stat heads. For the uninformed, his formula involves four different categories with a particular weight assigned to their individual importance:

  • Shooting (40%)
  • Turnovers (25%)
  • Rebounding (20%)
  • Free Throws (15%)

I won’t follow it to a T, but I’m using Oliver’s formula as a jumping-off point to examine four factors to track in the Milwaukee Bucks first round series against the Detroit Pistons. Each category is designed to allow for broader interrogation:

  • Shooting Location
  • Free Throw Attempts
  • Rebounding Rate
  • Sneaky Key Buck to Watch

We’ll look at each team’s statistical profiles across the full season, as well as diving into the results from the four times they squared off this year. While those types of small sample sizes always bring their own warts, it’s all we’ve got, and I find it helpful to see what sort of trends may continue and which may be due for some regression this series. If you’re looking for further offensive breakdown of each team’s strategies, check out Brian’s winning formula’s piece. Let’s get into it.

Shooting Location

Since Bud’s arrival, Milwaukee’s been the Mona Lisa of modern basketball efficiency. Eschewing the midrange for a bevy of buckets beneath the rim and beyond the arc, the Bucks have developed the league’s third most potent offense per Cleaning The Glass. Below is a breakdown of how frequently the Bucks shoot in terms of location, cross referenced with where Detroit’s defense allows shots from. You can read the league rank next to the percentage, but my color-coded system goes Green (ranked 1-10), Gray (11-20) and Red (21-30). As per usual with the uber-intelligent Cleaning The Glass stats, ranking high in rim and 3-point shot frequency defensively means allowing the fewest percentage of shots from that area.

On first blush, it seems like the Pistons have a defense well-designed to counter the Bucks’ shot location by Stripping away shots at the rim at a decent clip, while preventing long-range buckets. So why have the Bucks worn the Pistons’ tread down so severely in each match up? In a word, ramming the rim. It’s the Pistons most glaring disadvantage when looking at the shot locations and it bore out. In their four games, the Bucks shot a blistering 75.4% at the rim against Detroit, which would’ve been tops in the league by a significant percentage. Nearly 40% of their shots came from that bountiful region too, right around their season average.

From deep, Milwaukee went a little over their season average, hitting 37.7% of their shots. That figure would’ve been a top-five mark in the league, so there could be a bit of mean regression hitting them this series. The more important is likely that despite the Pistons penchant for running teams off the arc, Milwaukee still had 35.5% of their jumpers come from The Good Land. While slightly below their season average, it still would’ve ranked as top-ten mark this year. That, combined with the outlandish efficiency down low was too overwhelming.

Defensively, while the Bucks had several outliers by allowing nearly 50% of Detroit’s shots at the rim in one game, and allowing 75% rim finishing (albeit on just 24.4% of shots) in another, Milwaukee’s defense vs. Detroit went according to their season’s plan. Again, the rim was Milwaukee’s greatest advantage. The Pistons got 37% of their shots from three point land, but were a somewhat chilly 33% from deep (colored a bit by a frigid 21.9% in their final game). In the restricted area though, the Pistons shot just 55.1% across the four games. Finishing there isn’t Detroit’s strong suit, but the tour de force was when the Pistons could only convert 45.7% of their shots near the rim when they still had almost 50% of their attempts from that area. That’s tough to come back from. For your own reference, here’s how the teams match up in terms of shooting accuracy offensively and defensively too.

Free Throw Attempts

This one is difficult and likely a tad mercurial as well as the Playoffs evolve. Sometimes, it’s really at the whim of the refs, but all season long, the Bucks have been aces at navigating this bastion of efficient basketball on the defensive end. After hacking like needy children last season, Coach Bud has instilled a culture of not getting handsy with the opposing team. Milwaukee leads the league this season by allowing just 16.1 free throw attempts per 100 possessions to opponents on the season. In contrast, Dwane Casey’s Pistons love to slappa the bass-ketball. They’re 26th in the league in terms of opponent charity stripe attempts, allowing 21 per 100 possessions.

For a team led by a foul magnet like Giannis, the Bucks actually aren’t that high up the free throw rate rankings offensively. Cleaning The Glass has them at 19.9 per 100, just 15th in the league. Detroit ranks just behind them. It isn’t a primary function of Detroit’s offense, so it may not be a massive advantage for the Bucks that they keep their hands to themselves, but that type of discipline can make the difference when multiplying the sheer volume of basketball decisions over 48 minutes.

What did it look like in their four matchups this season? Well, the Pistons actually had a fairly distinct advantage. Across the four games, Milwaukee’s FT rate/100 averaged out to 18.6, below their season average. Considering the Piston’s penchant for the exact opposite over the course of the season, that’s surprising. Defensively, the Bucks were even more stout than usual though, allowing just 13.9 FT/100 to Detroit. In the Playoffs, it’s entirely possible the refs swallow their whistle and get even more lenient when it comes to contact beneath the whistle.

Peering deeper, the cause for Milwaukee’s lower attempts becomes clear: Giannis only attempted 16 free throws across four games despite taking 60 shots. That’s a free throw rate of 26.7%. His season average is 55.0%. For a guy that averaged 9.5 free throw attempts per game, against a team that’s prone to hack opponents, I’d look for this to be a more robust factor in this series than it was this season. Eric Bledsoe is the only other elite foul drawer on the Bucks for his position, drawing contact on 11.4% of his shots (91st percentile for guards). The few other candidates, Khris Middleton (61st percentile), George Hill (55th percentile) and Malcolm Brogdon (50th percentile), may see a slight bump given the Piston’s proclivity to foul, but the exploitable inefficiency lies with Giannis.

Rebounding Rate

Bud’s black magic might’ve been most impressive in transforming Milwaukee’s sieve-like defensive rebounding reputation into a sterling base for their season-long success. The offensive turnaround seemed obvious, the defensive turnaround seemed sensible, but building nearly the more robust rebounders in the league? That prediction would’ve seemed preposterous.

Milwaukee’s “fallen” to third in the category after ranking at the pinnacle nearly all season, with a defensive rebounding rate of 77.1% on Cleaning The Glass. They’ll need every bit of their bulwark butts to box out the unrelenting Pistons on the offensive glass too. Detroit ranks 6th in the league in terms of offensive rebounding rate at 27.5%. Andre Drummond leads their pack of horses assaulting the rim. Across the four games these teams played thus far, the Bucks defensive rebounding rate didn’t differ too drastically from their season average though. In fact, in only one of the games were the Pistons able to even hit their yearly mark in terms of grabbing buckets off the boards.

It goes hand-in-hand with Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding prowess, but the Bucks led the league in terms of putback plays allowed per miss. Consequently, they were, shocker, second in terms of points allowed per putback. The Pistons, for their prowess on the offensive boards, aren’t a great putback team though. Among the top ten teams in terms of putback plays per missed basket, the Pistons rank worst between them (17th), in terms of points per miss. Thus far, the Pistons haven’t been able to scald the Bucks with second chances, nor has Milwaukee allowed them to do so in ample amounts this year.

Milwaukee, for its part, has essentially sacrificed the offensive glass. They rank 27th in offensive rebounding percentage, preferring to retreat to the other end to secure their basket. Part of that also stems from its inverted offensive set-up, with Splash Mountain and Bud’s merry men of height peppered around the perimeter rather than pulling up a patio chair to the paint. However, their dynamite defensive rebounding is a pivotal part of their stellar offensive attack.

When Mike Budenholzer chose to install his conservative defensive scheme and sacrifice potential turnovers, it seemed like Milwaukee’s fast break and transition game could take a dip. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. With their pack-line box out methods, any time the Bucks grab the ball they’re screaming down to catch defenses off guard with a transition attack off live ball rebounds. Few teams employ the tactic more, they rank 5th in terms of percentage of transition plays within this criteria. Add on top of that the fact they’re getting a mountainous number of missed shots from teams with the second best defensive effective field goal percentage in the league, and the chances for an efficient score only increase. They’re potent too, ranking fifth in the NBA in terms of points per 100 possessions in these transition scenarios.

Every team in the league is primarily a halfcourt team, but the Bucks run nearly 5% more of their plays in transition than the Pistons. The Pistons aren’t transition-dependent for their offense, mitigating an advantage Milwaukee has had all season with league’s best transition defense. The Bucks distinct offensive attitude should pay dividends here though. As we’ve said before, these little seeds can bear ample fruit when the minutes multiply over the course of a round.

Sneaky Key Buck to Watch

We all know these Playoff series will be won and lost by the Bucks’ stars. All season long though, this team has felt like a cohesive unit, reliant on everything working together in synergy for its bombastic success. Giannis will be the fulcrum, but there are plenty of other pieces making up the lever. Each series, I’m going to try and identify one candidate who could make minor differences here and there to help take this team over the top. Here, we’re dealing with supremely small sample sizes, so take any sort of shooting progress with a grain of salt, but I’m targeting Sterling Brown.

His basic counting stats against the Pistons were right around his season average: 8 points, 2.7 boards, 1.3 assists and 2.3 steals. One of those figures should stand out. It’s the one in bold. Yes, Sterling Brown, your friendly neighborhood motherf&*%!$ defensively, has terrorized the Pistons offense in his few matchups.

Despite Milwaukee not relying heavily on steals within its defense, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a pivotal part of their guard’s on-ball doggedness. Not only does Brown have active hands when digging down from the perimeter to help the Bucks interior defenders on drives and penetration, but he’s constantly keeping his arms within the passing lane to deflect balls and get them to his teammates to carom down for a bucket on the other end.

I have to think his father and mother were mudders, because he’s more than willing to stick his nose into the muck. He can body up Blake Griffin if necessary, all the way out to 30 feet from the basket.

That sort of defensive versatility is what makes Brown’s defense an underrated fella to watch. He should be able to keep up with any Pistons guard, perhaps outside of the occasional Reggie Jackson scoot-by, and he’s got more than enough athletic ability to chase gunners around screens. Some of the steals in his Pistons compilation are products of fortuitous timing, but being in the right spot is a skill Brown has in spades.

On top of that, he’s found more of an offensive role in Malcolm Brogdon’s absence, even flashing a surprisingly adept ability to get to and finish at the rim. Just a few of those buckets can help this team sustain should Giannis face a roadblock at the rim and their 3-point jumpers aren’t falling. His 63.2% shooting with 0-3 feet is a marked improvement from his sub-par rookie season at the rim and Detroit doesn’t have the type of guards Brown should shy away from driving on should the opportunity present itself.

When it comes to Playoff breakdowns, it can be hard to know where to stop. We all know the big questions though: How will Eric Bledsoe bounce back from his Celtics series? Can Khris Middleton’s piping hot Playoff shooting return? Will Giannis dunk too much, or way too much? Playoff series can swing on the margins too, and the Bucks have a distinct advantage in many of these fringe factors. I think this one goes pretty easily to Milwaukee; Green and Flowing forever!