Defense. It’s all any Milwaukee Bucks fan wants to talk about in light of offering the New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets unlimited three-point attempts, on the house. Nothing heals hurt feelings quite like winning though. And win Milwaukee did in dumping their own barrage of deep buckets atop a weakened Blazers squad. Let’s wrap up a week that was bookended by wins and positively rotten in between.
The Week That Was
- January 27: Milwaukee 115, Toronto 108 (Elite Shotmaking Propels Milwaukee to Victory)
- January 29: Milwaukee 126, New Orleans 131 (Bucks Steamrolled in the Bayou)
- January 30: Milwaukee 114, Charlotte 126 (Bucks Disappoint in Charlotte)
- February 1: Milwaukee 134, Portland 106 (Bucks Race Past Blazers)
Funny how a week can go from, “Wow, they made how many threes? And the Bucks still won?” to “They made how many threes? No wonder the Bucks lost,” and finish with, “Ya, we hit that many threes, utter destruction.” The middle point is obviously simplifying what’s grown into a more robust discussion among the fanbase: is Bud’s scheme cooked? The sheer amount of three-point shots, and mediocre teams continued ability to hit them consistently, has left many fans wanting. Continuing the carnival that has been their communication on switching hasn’t helped either. As a positive, at least against the Raptors we saw Giannis calmly find his spots and facilitate as needed. That’s encouraging against a team willing to throw the kitchen sink at the Bucks offense.
The New Orleans game was a wrap from jump, even if they erased a 29-point deficit. Eric Bledsoe’s seven triples felt like a particularly frigid dagger. Charlotte was a lack of execution across the board defensively. Milwaukee repeatedly found themselves repeatedly out of position. Careless turnovers, coupled with horrific transition performances, led to a disappointing back-to-back sequence of losses.
Thank goodness for that Portland win.
There’s one simple reason I want to highlight this opening against Toronto: it’s directly in dialogue with what we covered in this section last week. The sets aren’t entirely identical, and the players have swapped around, but the mission is the same: get Giannis the ball on the block. I included both plays below as a point of reference.
It’s a familiar opening, with a spacer in the corner, Brook atop as the swing passer and Middleton running up from the elbow to set a screen on Pascal Siakam at the free throw line. Last week, against LA, that free throw screener was Donte. After a light Lowry tag, Giannis will have plenty of space to break free.
As Giannis spreads his wings, it’s a massive, unimpeded target for Donte to hit. Giannis takes up residence on the left block, low, and the Raptors on the weakside are preoccupied with the shooters in their corridors. Donte makes his ripthrough move after ceding the ball to Giannis.
From there, it’s merely a race between Donte and Powell. The Bucks work off their low-post action last week that let Giannis go one-on-one with Anthony Davis, to bucket-worthy success. This week, they play off of it by adding in the cut by Donte that leads to a reverse lay-up off the baseline dribble hand-off.
On the StruggleBucks
If this section represented the Buck who struggled the most the past week, then I’d have a smorgasbord of options for this week. D.J. Augustin found himself effectively benched after a 4-minute, -21 stretch against the Hornets. Donte DiVincenzo’s temporary XP boost on his shotmaking has worn off. Either would be worthy candidates for this week. But, I want to look at one particular part of a star player’s game, and that’s Khris Middleton. The man has been spectacular, but he also averaged only 12.3 shot attempts this past week, under his 15.0 season average. Given his efficiency this season, I wanted to check in on how he, Giannis and Jrue are handling their share of the offensive load.
For Middleton, I want to start by looking at the Charlotte game specifically. His trademark efficiency didn’t wane with 18 points on merely nine shots. But in a loss, nine attempts gets construed as a “lack of aggression” rather than “smartly deferring to teammates.” Some of it could be a lack of assertiveness. He’s never been one to demand the ball, and he’s balancing how to give Holiday leeway to find his role offensively. Several times in the first quarter, Jrue went ahead with a pull-up shot or driving, despite Middleton having an occasional mismatch on Cody Zeller. Still, Jrue had already knocked down several shots in the opening minutes and found himself in the groove. No harm no foul there.
In the second half, there were a few examples where the Hornets clearly kept themselves tethered closer to Khris than to Holiday, forcing the latter Buck to beat them from outside. It’s a smart tactic, and one we’ll likely see in the Playoffs, but Holiday going 5-10 from deep was an encouraging sign. Here’s an example of Holiday forcing it a tad though in the second half as Khris screams down the court.
It’s not a terrible shot, but it probably cost the Bucks a slightly better one, and is illustrative of why Middleton’s shots were down in this one. Examining the larger context of the season, it’s also important for Holiday to have these types of games where he feels empowered to be aggressive.
Here’s an interesting example of why, while I’m generally interested in seeing how “the dunker” catalyzes this offense, it does occasionally feel like a waste for Middleton to be the one lurking down there. In this play, his only real function is funneling another man into Donte’s airspace as he misses the lay-in.
Last year, Middleton likely would’ve been in the corner, his man alongside him. Obviously they’re still getting the dunker principles down, but once they do, it may behoove them to weave in a bit more unpredictability using some common sense principles. Given how frequently they operate in transition, it feels a bit wasteful for someone of Khris’s long-range talents to be standing still like a schoolboy beneath the rim.
Charlotte wasn’t placing any sort of intense ball pressure on Khris, nor were they trying to use someone like Miles Bridges (for the most part) as an uber-athlete designed to knock him off his spots. Usually it was Gordon Hayward or Davante Graham getting the assignment.
Really, the one chance where he could’ve grabbed rein of the offense came with an all-bench crew to close the third, but beyond a 3-pointer, he generally facilitated to others. The real disappointment came as the game ticked away, and the Bucks barely even looked Middleton’s way on any of their final offensive sets. They got solid enough shots for the most part, but it would have been refreshing to see a sprinkling of off-ball action late for him. His only shot in the final stanza came midway through the final period.
It’s a tricky business, managing the ball among three stars. Let alone one who’s the reigning MVP and the other still trying to find his footing. For the most part, Middleton has ate well this year. Here’s the current usage stats among their big three players both this year and last (Jrue’s 2019-20 is obviously in New Orleans)
Usage Rate by Season
As a reminder, usage rate only takes into account when a player ends a possession with a field goal attempt, free throw attempt or turnover. As such, Middleton’s uptick in assists may account for a bit of that dip. Still, Middleton has sacrificed some of his usage and is taking a few less shots per-36. For what it’s worth, both Jrue and Giannis have sacrificed usage and shot attempts too from last season’s numbers. The question is how Bud will calibrate that hierarchy. The broad pecking order is clearly defined: Giannis, Khris, then Jrue. But that could (and should) shift based on context. In clutch, there’s likely going to be more opportunities for Middleton. Already, we saw Bud call upon Middleton (perhaps one too many times) against Brooklyn. He’s got a higher usage rate than Giannis at the moment, albeit in just 21 clutch minutes.
Please forgive me for these unfair comparisons given Milwaukee doesn’t have a “Big Three” on these levels, but I was curious how other teams handled it during their first year together (Golden State is the exception, as I chose their 14-15 championship season here):
Usage Rate of Other “Big Threes”
At this point, Middleton stacks up pretty well with the usage rate of other big three stars, and I’m curious how much more there is to mine from that well. If Bud wants more Middleton-centric possessions, he could slot him into a central role among bench units. It led to mixed results against the Hornets, but Bud still seems to be reconfiguring his staggering principles. Here’s the minutes each player has had “solo” on the floor, without the other two stars, per NBAWowy:
Minutes W/O Other Two Stars
And so, it’s up to Bud to determine if there’s still untapped potential for more Middleton shots, and whether his efficiency could scale with increased volume. Given how hot the offense is humming, I’m sure he’s wary to mess with the calibration too sharply. The Hornets game was clearly an example where Middleton’s role as spacer and facilitator could’ve been dialed a bit closer to aggressor, but it’s a tricky calculation.
Five weeks into the season and I would not have predicted this is where the results would be at this point:
- Giannis: 1 MVP
- Khris: 2 MVPs
- Jrue: 2 MVPs
Y’all are really taking that, “Don’t call me MVP until I win it again,” speech from Giannis to heart? All kidding aside, I’m not too surprised by the results. This week felt like the first “Giannis” week of the season, even if some of his outsized performances came in losses. The comfort on offense seemed evident, which matters more than anything else. Let’s see how the sixth week of voting goes.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (4 GP: 28.5 pts, 12.8 reb, 7.3 ast, 1.0 stl, 1.3 blk)
The Greek Freak tonight:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 31, 2021
34 PTS | 18 REB | 9 AST | 63% FG pic.twitter.com/2iVJy8rAxR
Khris Middleton (4 GP: 18.8 pts, 6.8 reb, 7.0 ast, 1.3 stl)
Khris makes a 24p/10r/7a game look so effortless. pic.twitter.com/ZsitUVvnGG— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 28, 2021
Jrue Holiday (4 GP: 18.0 pts, 7.0 reb, 5.8 ast, 2.0 stl, 0.8 blk)
.@Jrue_Holiday11 showing why he's an #NBAAllStar:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 2, 2021
22 PTS | 7 REB | 6 AST | 71% FG pic.twitter.com/KEiBaBsyeH
Week 6: The Bucks MVP was...
This poll is closed
This poll will close on Thursday, February 4 at noon.
That does it for another wrap-up. Let’s hope next week’s edition can hit more positive notes. Let us know who you voted for as MVP in the comments below, and thanks for reading.