With the Milwaukee Bucks set to begin their second round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, there’s one question we’ve all been waiting for: How the hell are the Bucks going to stop Al Horford? If there’s one non-elite player remaining in the entire playoff’s that’s most equipped to expose Milwaukee’s defensive weaknesses it’s Horford.
The NBA playoffs are all about matchups. In order to beat a talented team four times in seven games, you must be able to take advantage of certain matchups. And the most talked about player battle in this series is Brook Lopez vs Horford.
The Bucks gave up 31.2 three-point attempts per 100 possessions in the regular season-the most in the NBA. A lot of this was due to the nature of their pick-and-roll defense. Head coach Mike Budenholzer emphasized protecting the rim. On a ball screen, the big man defending the roller would exaggerate his drop and get deep into the paint upon contact. This gave the ball-handler plenty of room to pull-up from distance or to weave deep into the paint before kicking it to a usually open big man who had popped away from the rim.
It wasn’t that the Bucks wanted to give up open outside looks. Instead, they prioritized defending shots around the rim and lived with the rest.
Although Lopez is elite at protecting the rim, he’s unable to be in two places at once. It’s hard for anyone to have to defend both the paint and the three-point line from invasions nonetheless for a 7-foot, 270 pound behemoth to do it.
Unfortunately, Horford will put their defensive scheme to the test. Against the NBA as a whole, he averaged exactly three catch-and-shoot threes per game in the regular season and connected on a favorable 36 percent of them. However, he went bonkers against Milwaukee-throwing up 8.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game and still making 35.3 percent of them.
As Horford initiates the screen on Malcolm Brogdon, Lopez drops so he has both feet just above the restricted area. Marcus Smart dribbles off the pick toward Lopez before quickly retreating to the wing. Lopez stays put so Smart slings the ball to Horford for an open three as Lopez works to close out with a high contest. Even though the shot didn’t go in, the action still generated a good look for Boston.
Horford’s ability appears to put Budenholzer in a conundrum. Do they stick with their defensive scheme that allowed them to post the best defensive rating in the league? Or do they switch things up in an attempt to throw the Celtics off and limit Horford’s outside shooting ability?
One thing’s for sure; when the Bucks are in their drop pick-and-roll defense it will be difficult to defend Horford at the arc.
With the Celtics quickly bringing the ball up the court, Horford sets a screen for Kyrie Irving going toward the left wing. Once again, Lopez drops deep into the paint to prevent the dangerous point guard from getting a shot around the rim. As he’s dropping, Lopez slides to the top of the key. He receives the bounce pass from Irving and calmly knocks down the triple.
Irving draws a lot of attention when he has the ball in his hands and rightfully so. He’s one of the best creators in the league and is an elite ball-handler. However, the Bucks will have to choose between stopping Irving from getting going and giving up somewhat open looks to Horford from deep. And so far this season they’ve picked the first option.
This is a similar play as the last one except with Gordon Hayward as the ball-handler. As he attacks the Bucks defense following the pick, Lopez, Khris Middleton and Ersan Ilyasova all react by making it their primary responsibility to stop Hayward from getting to the basket:
This ensures Hayward must look elsewhere for his team to score, but also leaves the Bucks vulnerable. As he passes the ball back up top, Lopez has a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. Fortunately, Horford barely hits the iron, as he misses the good look.
Boston also has this weapon available to them in crunch time. As we’ve seen in the past, Milwaukee is unlikely to switch anything up unless they’re really in a bind. We’ve seen them go to a switching defense in a game against the Indiana Pacers where they were down by double-digits early in the fourth quarter. However, if it’s close, Lopez will presumably be tasked with his typical assignments.
With the Celtics trailing by three points and one minute remaining, they needed a basket in the worst way. What did they call for? You guessed it-the pick-and-pop with Irving and Horford.
Horford sets a high screen on Eric Bledsoe before Irving eventually dribbles behind his back and goes the opposite way. Still, Lopez had dropped to the free throw line and was working hard to contain Irving off the dribble. Once Uncle Drew was satisfied he baited the big man far enough away from his assignment, he whipped a secret behind the back pass to Horford who knocked down the clutch three.
The Bucks did do something a little different on this clip called a “paint switch” or a “late switch.” As Irving drug the ball farther and farther away from Horford, Bledsoe realized it was probably infeasible for Lopez to recover. He then attempted to switch onto Horford and contest the outside shot.
It’s small adjustments like these that may be difficult to notice, but they’ll go a long way in determining the outcome of this series. It’s the game within the game.
The Celtics dominated the Bucks this season when Horford and Lopez shared the court with Milwaukee accruing a net rating of -33.5 in 44 minutes. However, when Horford went to the bench and Lopez stayed on the floor, the net rating shot up to 32.6. That will have to change.
Milwaukee will be hard-pressed to abandon the defense that allowed them to do so many things well in the regular season. They’ll likely force the Celtics and Horford to constantly and consistently shoot them out of their scheme. It’s something Horford might capable of doing, but can he do so four times in a seven-game series? That’s the ultimate question.