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Milwaukee Bucks 5 Observations, Including How To Attack A Zone

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The Milwaukee Bucks attacking a zone defense, Dragan Bender time and more!

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Check out these five observations about the Milwaukee Bucks, as you Packer fans recover from a rough Sunday:

Antetokounmpo’s Mid-Range

As Jonathan Gauthier (@jgauthier_23) astutely noted on twitter dot com, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks a little more spry from the mid-range this season (the short mid-range to be exact). And he has to be, considering defense’s mandate to keep him out of the paint.

The Greek Freak hasn’t been able to get to the hoop nearly as much as last season thanks to the “build a wall” strategy popularized in the Eastern Conference Finals. Good teams constantly stack the paint with bodies and force Antetokounmpo to look elsewhere for his points.

That’s what led to the barrage of threes he’s unleashed this season, as well as an ever so slight increase in his short mid-range game. To be clear, all shots taken between four and 14 feet (the free throw line area) count toward the short mid-range category.

Antetokounmpo’s ball-handling and first-step surge give him certain advantages when it comes to attacking off the bounce. Defenses have long discovered it’s a nearly impossible task for one man to shut that down so they’ve relied on multiple adults to handle the task.

When teams show him bodies, instead of going through them every time, he’s developed a few counters. A mini step-back of sorts (as mini as it gets when it comes to Antetokounmpo) and a fadeaway are two of his favorites. Although he’s not yet dynamic in this area, he’s shooting just above league-average according to Stat Muse. It’s a work in progress, but it’s yet another tool in his belt.

A glance at Antetokounmpo’s shot chart this season via StatMuse.com
StatMuse.com

Wesley Matthews’ Impact

When the Bucks signed Wesley Matthews last summer, some saw him as a replacement for Malcolm Brogdon. It doesn’t appear the front office ever held those same aspirations. Instead, they positioned him to open things up for his teammates in an indirect way.

Matthews is spending more time on the bench than at any point in his career, scoring fewer points than ever and shooting a career-low from the three-point line. That doesn’t mean his impact on the Bucks isn’t a profound one. As I wrote for Forbes Sports, Matthews’ responsibilities opens the game up for his teammates.

The primary defender on the opposing team’s best wing, Matthews’ toughness shines through on a nightly basis. He relishes that task and lives for the in-game battles. It’s no coincidence that Khris Middleton, once the primary wing-stopper, is having a career offensive year given his fewer defensive responsibilities.

Bender Time

Milwaukee has a promising young big man buried on their bench and head coach Mike Budenholzer appears to be trying to find different ways to get him real game action. No, not D.J. Wilson—we’re talking about Dragan Bender.

The Bucks took a throw at the dartboard when they acquired Bender last summer. The former fourth overall pick had flunked out of Phoenix and had a questionable future in the NBA. However, he’s shot his way to another chance with Milwaukee.

In 10 G-League games with the Wisconsin Herd, he’s averaging 21.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in just 28.1 minutes per game. Oh, and he’s also shooting an insane 43.3 percent from three.

That was enough for Budenholzer to play him meaningful minutes against both the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets over the last week of basketball. The results were a mixed bag, as he only connected on two of his 10 attempts, but at least shot the ball with confidence. His ability to hang around the league longer will likely depend on hitting those outside shots, as his under the rim athleticism is a glaring weakness at this stage.

We’ll see if Bender continues to get playing time when Robin Lopez comes back healthy. All of his meaningful minutes have come at center so far, as Ersan Ilyasova occupies the backup power forward position. Regardless, it says a lot how he was able to earn that playing time ahead of Wilson. We’ll see if this run continues.

How To Attack A Zone Defense

There are many ways to attack a zone defense (like the one we saw the Nets throw at the Bucks on Saturday), and one of the more popular strategies is to get the ball into the middle of the zone. The middle is usually the soft spot when it comes to 2-3 alignments, and the offense can disrupt everything by getting the ball there in the hands of a playmaker.

The Nets began in their 2-3 zone, including on the second possession of the game shown in the video above. Milwaukee counters with their typical 5-out offense, however, there’s one distinct difference; Antetokounmpo is near the free throw line instead of the top of the arc.

There’s no defender in his immediate vicinity, as they each have other responsibilities to attend to. Spencer Dinwiddie is busy guarding the ball, Jarrett Allen leaves the rim vulnerable if he slides all the way to the free throw line and Kyrie Irving is worried about a skip pass to Brook Lopez on the weak side.

When Antetokounmpo receives the ball, he immediately attacks the vacated rim. Allen still does a nice job recovering and getting between Antetokounmpo and the basket, but the advantage still rests with Milwaukee, as they convert the layup.

Here’s another clip where the Bucks exploited the middle:

This time, it’s Khris Middleton who spots up at the elbow and receives the pass from Kyle Korver. Once they get the ball there, it’s game over for the defense. Middleton and the Bucks immediately recognize their four-on-three advantage and waste no time attacking it. Middleton draws Allen’s attention before dropping it off to Antetokounmpo in the lane. All three Nets’ defenders collapse on him, and he can either choose to kick it out to a wide open Eric Bledsoe for three or shoot a semi-open step-back. He chose the step-back.

More Pick-And-Rolls

Despite having one the most efficient pick-and-roll teams whether it be via the ball-handler or the roll-man, the Bucks hardly use it—running it on just 18.8 percent of their possessions (third-lowest in the NBA). They should change that moving forward.

Antetokounmpo is an elite option both when it comes to setting screens (1.19 points per possession) or handling the rock (1.12 ppp). His combination of size, athleticism and ball-skills constantly puts defenders in risky situations. If he leads the charge with the rock in his hands, he has trusty partners such as Robin Lopez, Brook Lopez or Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks can also mix things up, which they sometimes do, and have the likes of George Hill or Kyle Korver set the screen before popping to the three-point line.

If Budenholzer wants to use Antetokounmpo as a screener, Middleton is a worthy ball-handler. His 1.08 points per possession is just behind pick-and-roll fiends like Damian Lillard (1.12), Kemba Walker (1.11) and Chris Paul (1.10) even if the usage is vastly different.

When defenses tighten up in the postseason, and the Bucks are searching for a way to diversify their offense, the pick-and-roll presents a possible solution. The Bucks have already shown they’re very good at them even in a limited capacity. Running them more often could provide the answers the Bucks are looking for come May and June.