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Looking Ahead: What Can the Regular Season Teach Us About Milwaukee’s Postseason Potential?

Let’s start by looking backward

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NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Thanksgiving everyone — I’m thankful for all of you, and for the Milwaukee Bucks giving us the greatest gift of a championship this year. As you sift through your stuffing, a quick reminder that we’re already past the quarter mark of the 2021-22 NBA season. While the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have made hay, straw and oats off the NBA’s chaff on their latest home stand, this season has been far from the victory march I think most fans hoped it would be. Injuries broke that bus down the second it turned onto 4th street, but the team seems on the upswing. Still, I wouldn’t say I’ve enjoyed this season to the same degree I planned. I’ve found myself doling out excuses and shrugging my shoulders when I would much prefer to be donning my 2021 champions gear and hooting n’ hollering night after night. Regardless, what’s been interesting about this regular season is how deeply we’ve had to squint to find any semblance of insight that seems applicable to the tension-fueled postseason ball we enjoyed this summer. It got me thinking about the semi improbability of last year’s run, not narratively, but statistically.

We can all say the Bucks of 2020-21 were simply “experimenting” in the regular season, and the proof was in Budding. Still, I remember often thinking through those experiments, “I’m not sure this defense is ready for primetime.” Silly me! I just finished up the last slice of my humble pie last night, but it got me thinking about what we should be looking for during the next few months that might carry forward into the postseason. To start, let me remind you about some of the discrepancies between regular season and playoff performance from last year.

Offensive Rebounding Juggernaut

You’ll recall that the seeds were planted last season for Bud to allow his players to capitalize more on the offensive boards than was typical for a Bud team. Giving Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis the leash to bully on the boards meant more opportunities to score, and it didn’t drastically hurt their transition defense the way one would’ve expected. Still, it was a modest jump from past seasons, and nothing compared to the level they reached in May, June and July.

Bucks OREB% by Season

Season OREB% Rank
Season OREB% Rank
19-20 (Reg Season) 22.60% 29
19-20 (Playoffs) 22.40% 12
20-21 (Reg. Season) 25.70% 12
20-21 (Playoffs) 29.90% 2
21-22 (Reg Season) 23.90% 22

Stats as of 11/23 per Cleaning The Glass

Even in 2020-21, they weren’t near the top of the heap in the regular season, but their gaudy postseason mark would’ve ranked above New Orleans’ league-leading mark of 28.8% over the full year. And to have that level of domination across a quality sample size of four rounds? Impressive. The proper reading from that jump was probably, “okay, they’ve gone from 29th to 12th, so clearly they’re emphasizing OREB% more as a part of their offense,” not “They’re going to OREB their way to a title.” In that instance, the semi-drastic shift in play style was the indicator, and a thought process that a new strength would only be accentuated by leaning on their best players more. Another illustration of that effect was, of course, the defense.

Defensive Rating/3-point Opponent Frequency

You know that age-old adage that having a top-ten offensive and defensive rating is shorthand for “contender.” Well, the Bucks had the potent offensive figures last year, but the defense lapsed a bit after years atop the standings. It wasn’t so much the drop that had me concerned, as I just flat-out didn’t think the switching execution felt all that crisp. It seemed like they kept losing off-ball shooters, someone would be freelancing and force frenzied rotations, etc. So, when they developed into a locked-in, knock-out unit, I wasn’t caught off guard as much as pleasantly surprised.

Pts/100 Poss. Allowed

Season Pts allowed per 100 Poss. Rank
Season Pts allowed per 100 Poss. Rank
2020-21 (Regular Season) 112.1 10
2020-21 (Playoffs) 108.8 3
2021-22 (Regular season) 107 12

Stats as of November 23, per Cleaning The Glass

It wasn’t just the switchy crews though, their drop coverage was instrumental in decimating the Miami Heat and ultimately bogging down the Brooklyn Nets too. They also utilized 1-4 switching in the postseason, all of which is to say the experimenting did pay off, I just wouldn’t have predicted the level of togetherness while on the court.

An underrated aspect of that defense was a stingier defense in terms of opponent 3-point attempts. They’ve always been near the top of that category under Bud, and once again allowed the 5th highest percentage of opponent shots from deep last regular season (38.9%). Look at the postseason though, and that figure dips to 36.5%. That’s not a huge leap, but it’s good enough to push them towards the middle of the pack among Playoff teams. Couple even a small drop like that, alongside an even smaller percentage of shots at the rim (23.7% in playoffs versus 27.3% in regular season) and Milwaukee shaved off lots of edges from opponent’s attempts in terms of efficiency.

A drop in 3-point attempt rate was not at all what I would’ve predicted. I guessed opponents would be trying to exploit that element of Milwaukee’s defense in every round knowing the rim wouldn’t provide any favors. Interestingly, out of the core seven players from last year’s championship run (Giannis, Khris, Jrue, Brook, Tucker, Pat, Portis), Tucker’s on-court presence in the regular season resulted in the lowest percentage of opponent threes (36.8%). Granted, on a much smaller sample size, but his switchability and assignment-soundness were on full display in the Playoffs too, and likely led to players being somewhat more reticent to shoot without sufficient air space.

Milwaukee is allowing more opponent threes this year (39.7%), but keep an eye on it as the year progresses. I especially am interested to see if Donte’s presence has any effect, as I typically saddle him with the “too much freelancing” bag.

Smallball Surprise

Bigball might’ve played just as crucial a role during the Bucks championship run, but they found a competent smallball unit to trot out there with Holiday-Tucker-Connaughton-Middleton-Giannis. We’ve all been searching for that same permutation this year, but alas, I’m not sure Semi Ojeleye is gonna be the answer folks. Still, looking at last year’s regular season, you’d be hard pressed to guess that Tucker-Giannis lineups were going to be a panacea. In 285 possessions last regular season, lineups with Tucker & Giannis were merely +0.4 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass. Marginally better than a .500 team.

Head to the Playoffs, and lineups with those two were +9.8/100 poss.

Peer deeper, and that smallball group I mentioned above were +16/100 possessions in the postseason. During the regular season, they played merely 11 possessions together. It would’ve been nigh impossible to predict that was going to be the stalwart smallball group that Bud leaned on the second most to secure the title. This season, even with ample opportunities thus far to see who might occupy that smallball crew with Brook Lopez out, we certainly don’t have a definitive answer.

All of this is to say, in a time of load management and high-level variance from night to night, it can be difficult to always determine what exactly from the regular season is going to translate to the Playoffs. With that said, we can’t just disregard these 82 games, as much as I know I’m personally already dying for the rush of pressure-packed Playoff minutes. So, what can we try to look for to determine what’ll be useful when the time comes. Here are a few things I’m keeping my eye on:

Grayson Allen’s on/off numbers

This one is the most obvious, especially given his high profile compared to other fresh arrivals. By my view, Allen’s closest proximity on last year’s Bucks is probably Bryn Forbes. For all the gravity Forbes provided as a versatile, dependable shooter, he couldn’t cut the mustard defensively in the Playoffs, and his shot abandoned him after torching Miami. I don’t think we’ll get a definitive answer on how Allen holds up defensively until the postseason, but he has more size and competes at a high level even if swift guards can rocket past him at times. The more relevant stat this regular season is how he plays with Giannis Antetokounmpo, IMO.

Last season, despite Giannis’ on-court presence generally rising all Bucks, Milwaukee was still a -0.5/100 possessions with Forbes and Giannis on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. has Giannis/Bryn as by far the worst net rating among two-man lineups with Giannis:

2020-21 Two-man Lineups w/Giannis

.K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo 1452 115.3 105.4 9.9
.G. Antetokounmpo, .D. DiVincenzo 1346 118.2 107.4 10.8
.B. Lopez, .G. Antetokounmpo 1269 117.7 108.5 9.2
.J. Holiday, .G. Antetokounmpo 1172 117.1 105.4 11.7
.G. Antetokounmpo, .P. Connaughton 767 113.9 102.9 11
.G. Antetokounmpo, .B. Forbes 698 113.9 111.8 2.1
.G. Antetokounmpo, .B. Portis 541 113.1 102 11.1
.D. Augustin, .G. Antetokounmpo 414 118.9 101.7 17.2

Stats as of November 23, per

Now, eventually (and likely already) Allen benefits somewhat from those Giannis minutes also coming with Milwaukee’s starters who generally steamroll folks. But the topsy-turvy, injury-riddled state of the team this year actually provides a pretty decent grouping of evidence of how Giannis and Allen might perform even when they’re not running with the creme de la creme of the Bucks roster.

The early returns are stellar, with Allen/Giannis two-man lineups posting a 110.0 offensive rating and 100.7 defensive rating. They’re not quite as good as a few other players, but the sample sizes are all still incredibly small at this point, and at least it’s not dampened to the degree Forbes lineups were last year. I’ll be keeping my eye on those groupings as the year continues, especially as we see how Bud starts to shape his rotation.

2021-22 Two-man Lineups w/Giannis

.G. Antetokounmpo, .G. Allen 377 110 100.7 9.3
.G. Antetokounmpo, .P. Connaughton 347 106.3 101.9 4.5
.G. Hill, .G. Antetokounmpo 302 114.1 94.2 19.9
.J. Holiday, .G. Antetokounmpo 262 116.9 98.2 18.7
.K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo 203 107 96.2 10.8
.G. Antetokounmpo, .B. Portis 191 110.1 98.8 11.3
.G. Antetokounmpo, .J. Nwora 154 106.7 92.1 14.6
.G. Antetokounmpo, .S. Ojeleye 99 98.6 100 -1.4
.G. Antetokounmpo, .J. Robinson 89 102.5 96 6.5
.G. Antetokounmpo, .R. Hood 84 100.5 96.3 4.3
.G. Antetokounmpo, .T. Antetokounmpo 80 104.8 100.6 4.2

Stats as of November 23, per

Giannis/Portis Lineups without Brook

This is a smaller one, and is going to be somewhat matchup dependent since Portis being playable against Brooklyn remains an open question, but Bud tapped into the combination of Giannis and Portis late in the postseason to fairly solid success. Here’s how Milwaukee performed overall in lineups with those two on the court last year versus this year:

Portis/Giannis Lineups by Season

Season Possessions Pts/100 Poss. Pts. allowed/100 Differential
Season Possessions Pts/100 Poss. Pts. allowed/100 Differential
20-21 (Regular Season) 1053 117.5 106.6 10.9
20-21 (Playoffs) 334 121 107.3 13.7
21-22 (Regular Season) 387 116 100.5 15.5

Stats as of November 23, per Cleaning The Glass

The most promising part of those lineups this year has been how the Bucks have defended with those two on the court, holding teams to a super-stingy figure that would rank tops in the league. Postseason lineups with Allen and Portis in the lineup around the big three offer an intriguing “smallball” option, where Bobby could effectively function as a floor spacer and rebounder without the Bucks sacrificing size. There would be two prey on the floor at once though for opponents. The question is how Bobby will hold up in switching in those scenarios, but Bud found a novel aid for that problem by having Holiday challenge ball handlers full court. In doing so, that can hopefully alleviate Portis from having point guards targeting him for 20-odd seconds of the shot clock, but rather more like 10-12. This is good practice for those moments, as evidenced in the Atlanta game when he was routinely roasted by Trae Young.

Still Letting it Fly?

One of the core tenets of Bucks basketball is that, come Playoff time, everyone must immediately suck at shooting threes. No matter who’s on the team, the crapshoots come out. Herb Kohl must’ve written it into the bylaws or something. Regardless, we saw during last year’s horrific display from deep (33.1% in postseason) that Bud’s “Let if Fly” mantra wouldn’t cut it if the team wanted to reach its potential. It wasn’t a drastic drop, but the Bucks subtly shifted their 3-point frequency from 39.4% in 2019-20 to 37.6% in 2020-21. During the Playoffs, it went down even further to 35.9%, which ranked 13th among all postseason teams.

That’s not a precipitous drop, but it’s something. It didn’t result in more shots at the rim (which would be ideal), but I don’t think abandoning a few threes for shots in the short or long midrange is such a bad outcome for this team, especially when they’ve actually ranked in the top-ten in terms of accuracy from those locations the last two seasons (don’t look this year, I’m serious, it’ll spoil your Thanksgiving meal). Plus, Khris Middleton and Holiday are capable of seeing those go down, and Giannis has been working in that midrange area as well. When it’s those guys taking jumpers vs. passing out and hoping a role player finally breaks his cold spell, I’ll take my chances with the stars.

So far this season, Milwaukee has been leaning even more heavily into the three ball, taking 43% of their shots beyond the arc. That’s likely a byproduct of missing Holiday, Middleton and Lopez, but it’s also evident of the increasing role that Allen and Connaughton have on offense. Both have been utterly reliable snipers so far, but we’ve also seen them be willing to put it on the deck and occasionally drive towards the basket. As this season goes on, especially when Brook comes back, I’ll be tracking whether the 3-point frequency drops a teensy bit lower. Last year’s Playoff team was pretty solid at situationally dropping down their number of attempts, so that even on a night they hit 20% from deep, they may only be jacking up 30 shots from that area.

Case in point: during their last three NBA Finals wins, they shot 26.9%, 30.8% and 29.0% of their shots, respectively, from deep. Will that same sort of in-game awareness show up as this season rolls on?

Eventually, when Brook is back, I expect the Bud staples to stabilize. The defensive rebounding will be fine, they won’t foul teams, they’ll get out in transition and their best lineups should still smash teams. It’s all about whether the championship habits they formed last year start to coalesce and emerge with a slightly tweaked cast surrounding them.

82 games is a long time, but trying to search for potential Playoff silver linings can help make it seem a little less grueling I think. I’m curious how everyone else is viewing the team this year, and what else you think might be useful to monitor as the season progresses? Let me know in the comments below!