In a macro view, the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense wasn’t the primary issue following their 112-90 Game 1 loss to the Boston Celtics. Yes, the numbers at the end of the game (a 112 defensive rating and allowing Boston to score 117.8 points per 100 possessions) aren’t pretty. However, they played well in the first half before allowing their offensive woes to directly lead to multiple ugly breakdowns in the second.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer made some changes to his pick-and-roll defense in the game and didn’t drop Brook Lopez nearly as far as he typically does. Outside of the unacceptable lapses, it was effective and Boston just hit some tough shots.
One area Milwaukee must refine is their coverage on Boston’s staggered ball screen. It’s a set they used throughout the game and the Bucks often struggled to contain it. The changes are easier said than done, as Boston has so many options out of this set. However, let’s take a look at the damage it did throughout this game.
Boston primarily ran it with Gordon Hayward as the ball-hander, allowing him to show off his passing and scoring ability. The first time it was called came less than a minute after he entered the game for the first time:
Jayson Tatum popped to the top of the key to receive the pass from Kyrie Irving and initiate the action. With Hayward in the short corner, he flowed toward the ball to receive a dribble hand-off of sorts from Tatum. Aron Baynes followed suit by setting the second ball screen creating the “staggered” look:
As Pat Connaughton got caught up in the traffic, it essentially created a 2-on-1 situation with Ersan Ilyasova as the disadvantaged player. Ilyasova was forced to choose between stopping Hayward from getting all the way to the rim or defending the rolling Baynes. Ilyasova eventually chose Hayward so the ball-handler dropped the ball down to Baynes. It’s unclear exactly what happened from there, but it appears the Bucks received a beneficial call from the official.
Hayward has really re-discovered himself over the last month or so and is showing more flashes of the dangerous player he was in Utah before his injury. This isn’t good news for the Bucks, as he’s able to use his size and skill to get to the rim off these sets:
This time the Celtics initiated the action on a sidelines out of bounds set. Baynes caught the inbounds pass at the top of the key and tossed the ball to Hayward on the right wing. He then got in the way of Irving’s defender, who went to set the first pick, before getting in place as the second screener.
As Hayward had Connaughton on his back, he and Baynes understood the whole right side of the court was open. This was intentional, as two Celtics sat on the weakside perimeter and Irving stayed put on the three-point line. The ball-handler snake dribbled back to the middle before eventually getting all the way to the rim after a nifty seal by Baynes.
The good news is the Bucks should be able to identify when the staggered screens are coming, as they usually begin the same way; with Hayward in one of the corners and a wing using a big man to pop to the top of the key and receive the initiation pass. Here are two back-to-back staggered screens Boston ran in the second quarter:
You can see both videos involved the same three primary Bucks as defenders; Connaughton, Ilyasoa and Giannis Antetokounmpo. On the first one, Antetokounmpo was a bit indecisive on whether to stick with his man on the perimeter or drop into the lane. This created the necessary space for Hayward to lean into a jumper for two points.
On the second video, Antetokounmpo tagged the rolling Baynes and clogged up the lane. This freed Ilyasova to commit to stopping Hayward and forcing the ball out of the paint. Milwaukee recovered nicely to the pass to the corner. (Not pictured is Hayward catching the next pass and blowing by Connaughton).
Speaking of the pass to the corner, that’s the next option in this action for the Celtics. If neither the shot for the ball-handler nor the roll-man are open, the ball-handler will look to one of the perimeter shooters surrounding him:
For the first time we saw Brook Lopez defending this action instead of Ilyasova. Lopez is a much bigger body and used his limbs to deter a pass to Horford who may have been open after the pick. Instead of trying to force the issue, however, Hayward elected to kick it to the corner after Ilyasova dropped to the left block for help. It created a good, open look and, fortunately, it didn’t fall.
Heading into Game 2, Milwaukee will likely continue to force Hayward to kick the ball to the perimeter instead of giving up shots at the rim or in the paint. That plays into the core of Budenholzer’s defensive scheme where he’s prioritized defending the rim at all costs.
This action is likely to rear its face throughout the series so Milwaukee must be prepared to stop it. Small changes like dropping the weakside defender to help stop penetration or tagging the roller are difficult to notice. However, it’s those small nuances that will go a long way in the grand scheme of things.