For the first time in the series, the Milwaukee Bucks were on the ropes against the Detroit Pistons in game two. The road team used a furious second quarter where they outscored the Bucks 32-20 to take a one-point lead into the locker room at halftime
Pistons’ head coach Dwane Casey did his due diligence and came out with a solid strategy. He often put four smaller players on the floor alongside either Andre Drummond or Thon Maker and encouraged them to push the ball up-and-down the court. This led to some easier buckets in transition in the first half and appeared to catch the Bucks off guard.
Another strategy Casey relied heavily upon was the constant pick-and-roll action with Drummond as the screener. This was a staple of their offense in the pre-Blake Griffin days and without the All-Star forward, Detroit went back to it once again.
The pick-and-roll was fairly effective in the first half, as the Bucks struggled to get a body on Drummond. Here’s the Pistons’ big man going unimpeded to the rim following a ball screen:
Following the double drag screen for Reggie Jackson, Langston Galloway pops to the three-point line bringing Ersan Ilyasova with him. As Khris Middleton splits the screens, Drummond naturally barrels down the lane. With Middleton momentarily out of the play, it creates a two-on-one situation for the Pistons with Brook Lopez as the disadvantaged man.
One of the reasons Lopez drops so low following the ball screen is to maximize the time the on-ball defender has to recover. Unfortunately, if the defender can’t recover quick enough it forces Lopez to choose between a rock and a hard place in stopping the ball-handler or the roll-man.
It’s also important to note George Hill’s positioning on this play. A lot of times, teams will have their weak side defender drop into the paint and “tag” the roll-man to slow him down from getting all the way to the rim. A tag is where a player will bump or get into the path of the big man going down the lane as a way of deterring a pass inside. Instead, Budenholzer elected to have his off-ball defenders stay tight to their man in order to prevent an open three-point look.
This wasn’t an isolated incident for the Bucks in the first half. It was a designed strategy, as Budenholzer elected to force the Piston’s ball-handlers into making a decision in tight quarters. It worked in the first game, as the Pistons were incredibly awful shooting 31.2 percent at the rim which ranks in the zero percentile according to Cleaning the Glass.
However, Detroit was a bit better in the second game, connecting on 46.4 percent of their at the rim attempts. Even though that’s a 15 percent increase, it still only ranked in the fourth percentile which is freakin’ crazy.
Here’s another example of how the Bucks defended the pick-and-roll in the first half:
Drummond once again sets a pick for the ball-handler before darting toward the hoop. Jackson gives George Hill a nice little right-to-left crossover before penetrating deep into the paint. With Hill momentarily crossed, Lopez is once again in a numbers game. This time, he leans toward defending Drummond which allows Jackson to bury an 11-foot floater. This is an ideal shot for the Bucks to give up and one which is very difficult for anyone to make on a consistent basis.
Once again, notice how the off-ball help defender stays close to his man and doesn’t get involved in the play. Instead of providing Lopez with some assistance, Middleton is coached to stay home and prevent the corner three.
The decision to attack the Bucks in the pick-and-roll while putting four shooters on the floor was a solid one for Detroit. They came out and played hard in the first half and knocked down a bevy of threes as well. However, Budenholzer is one of the best at playing a game within a game and made an adjustment in the locker room at half.
Here’s a ball-screen the Pistons set midway through the third quarter:
Drummond sets this pick on on the left wing allowing for Ish Smith to get to the middle of the floor. As Lopez sinks into the paint, patiently waiting for Smith to attack, Giannis Antetokounmpo comes off his man in the corner and helps on the roll. This allows Lopez to fully commit to stopping the ball-handler while Eric Bledsoe works to recover.
Smith reads this as well and whips a pass to the corner instead of trying to force a shot over Lopez or a pass inside to Drummond. This is exactly what the Bucks wanted. Glenn Robinson III is only connecting on 28 percent of his corner threes this season which ranks in the fifth percentile among wings according to Cleaning the Glass. And now he’s forced to take that shot with the Greek Freak running at him? Hell no.
This strategy was very effective for the Bucks in the second half and was one of the primary reasons the Pistons scored just 40 points after the break. Detroit became flustered and was unable to knock down the outside shots the Bucks were forcing them into.
Drummond sets a pick at the top of the key for Luke Kennard this time. As the Pistons’ best shooter is neutralized with the ball in his hands, Milwaukee’s off-ball defenders are able to take more liberty in helping on the roll. Detroit’s big man pauses at the free throw line as Kennard is probing for cracks in the defense. As he does so, Bledsoe slides all the way over and nearly picks off the pass. His gamble doesn’t pay off and Drummond sends a delayed dish to Smith behind the arc. Another win for the Bucks, as the 34 percent three-point shooter can’t knock down the open look.
The Bucks’ defense was smothering in the third and fourth quarters and made Detroit work for every basket they got. Budenholzer definitely got his message across at half and his players responded accordingly. They were extremely active on both ends of the floor and were flying around while communicating at a high level.
In-game adjustments are something the Bucks severely lacked with their previous coaching regime. It’s a necessary ingredient to winning in the playoffs, as it’s the best of the best from this point forward. In Budenholzer, the Bucks have another weapon at their disposal that can help make this a deep postseason run.