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Sinking The Clippers: Analyzing The Bucks’ Fourth Quarter Defense

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The Bucks held Los Angeles to 19 points in the 4th quarter on Sunday. How well did they defend?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The scoring exhibition put on by Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday deserves attention. In fact, let’s give the dunk that served as the exclamation point on his 17-point fourth quarter one more look...

But it’s not the Bucks’ offense that deserves credit for the 105-100 win, it’s the defense. The Clippers average 27.3 points in the fourth quarter of games this year, yet they eked out only 19 against Milwaukee. How did the Bucks make that happen? As The Athletic’s Eric Nehm notes, it was both an adjustment to the defense by Mike Budenholzer and solid execution from the players on the floor.

In reality, it was all of the stops they got as they held the Clippers scoreless for the final four minutes of the game that sealed the victory. And while the Bucks’ biggest offensive play came from putting a little twist on something they always run, their defensive effort came from doing something they only do occasionally.

“This game was a stops game,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were able to make it as tough as possible for Kawhi and Paul George going down the stretch because before that, Kawhi was about to get going and then we switched everything and showed bodies and be active and that’s what we did. We were able to get stops and just try to make it as tough as possible for them.”

Yes, switching. The Bucks are switching on defense. They don’t do it all the time, but they do it more than they used to. They aren’t always good at it, but they’re better than they were before. I rewatched the fourth quarter and took notes on what I saw. Before I share those notes, here’s a couple points to remember:

Defense in the NBA is all about eliminating options. Good defenses eliminate the options that the offense wants, great defenses eliminate the options that the offense is comfortable with. Much of the criticism levied at the Bucks’ defense has been focused on how willing they are to let the opponent find comfortable outcomes if they prepare for it adequately, and the positive performance on Sunday should address much of that criticism.

Defense in the NBA is also often measured based on results, but it should be measured based on process. We worry about the shot that is made, but what about the steps that it took for the shot to be taken in the first place? If you remember the season opener, no one at the time accused the Bucks of defending the Celtics poorly, since it took a remarkably-lucky banked three-pointer to seize the win. But after a while, people forget about how well defended Jayson Tatum’s attempt was and look at the fact that Milwaukee lost a close game, and that their defensive system must somehow be at fault. The devil is in the details, and few people have the bandwidth to keep them all organized as time passes.

With those things in mind, here’s my written transcript of yesterday’s fourth quarter. I’ll be including the fourth quarter timestamp, a description of the play, and a verdict on how well Milwaukee defended and whether or not the results were positive.


The Bucks start off down only 4 points, thanks to a rushed Khris Middleton layup to end the third quarter. In a game decided by only 5 points, these little moments make a huge difference in the outcome. The quarter starts with a big lineup: Donte DiVincenzo and Khris Middleton in the backcourt, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and Brook Lopez in the backcourt.

  • 11:50 – LA starts with a dribble handoff from Ivica Zubac to Lou Williams, but Donte makes a big time gamble on the DHO and comes up with the steal. Credit to DiVincenzo for using his defensive instincts to make such an impactful play (he ended up with a breakaway dunk), but it’s rarely a preferred option

Verdict: bad process, good result

  • 11:23 – Williams brings the ball up and moves the ball to Marcus Morris on the right wing. Terrence Mann comes up from the corner for a dribble handoff; Bobby Portis and Giannis are covering the DHO and switch assignments. Mann ends up pulling the ball back out to the top of the floor, calls off a screen from Zubac, and passes to Paul George on the left side. George isolates against Khris Middleton and takes a midrange jump shot. Los Angeles did not manage to get the ball into the lane on this possession, and George hit a contested two-point jumper.

Verdict: good process, bad result

  • 10:59 – The Clippers begin a sequence of several Paul George-Ivica Zubac middle pick-and-rolls, an action they use repeatedly over the next few minutes. Khris and Brook Lopez cover the action, and they miscommunicate on the switch. Both end up staying on Paul George, forcing Donte to come off his man (Lou Williams) to tag Zubac on the roll. George makes a skip pass to Williams on the wing, and Portis closes out from the paint. Williams quickly swings the ball to Marcus Morris, who is open in the strong side corner for three.

Verdict: bad process, bad result

  • 10:41 – Off a miss, the Clippers start with another George-Zubac middle P&R, covered by Giannis and Brook. Giannis goes over the screen (Zubac makes good contact, slowing Giannis down) while Brook drops into the paint. Paul George has space to dribble to the right elbow and misses a jump shot. Again, a midrange jump shot is usually an outcome the defense prefers, even if George makes the field goal it’s generally an acceptable possession.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 10:15 – Paul George brings the ball up quickly off a defensive rebound, and Terrence Mann is open ahead in the strong side corner. Mann is not a quick-trigger shooter, so when Donte DiVincenzo closes out, he runs Mann off the line and forces him to drive baseline. Giannis meets Mann at the basket and forces Mann to pass into the weak side corner, where Marcus Morris takes a three. Bobby Portis covers and contests the three, but his timing is a little late. It’s always better to force a contested shot over an uncontested one, but it’s rarely preferred to have a shot go up from the corner instead of above the break.

Verdict: bad process, good result

  • 9:35 – This trip is a long one because it covers multiple possessions. It starts again with a George-Zubac middle P&R, covered by Giannis and Khris. Khris switches onto Paul George and contests a stepback three. Los Angeles recovers the long rebound, eventually getting the ball back to George who drives hard but is contested at the rim by Giannis. The ball gets loose again and again it finds itself in Paul George’s hands, but his corner three attempt comes after the shot clock buzzer goes off.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 9:04 – Williams and Zubac run yet-another middle P&R, covered this time by Donte and Brook Lopez. Donte goes over the screen (Zubac makes good contact, slowing Donte down), but instead of dropping into the paint Brook covers above the free throw line and switches onto Williams. Williams passes out to the right wing and gets the ball right back, uses a pump fake to force Lopez to step up. Williams drives past Lopez and gets to the basket, partially because Zubac lays a subtle screen on Giannis under the basket to prevent the contest. Zubac’s screen could have gotten whistled, but it wasn’t, and Williams has an easy-for-him layup with Lopez trailing. The switch prevented Los Angeles from taking an easy three, and while it’s not ideal Williams’ drive was aided by a clever use of space-taking by Zubac more than anything else.

Verdict: good process, bad result

  • 8:42 – Terrence Mann takes a defensive rebound all the way in transition, but his layup attempt is contested by Brook Lopez at the rim. Brook’s hustle helped keep from giving up an easy two points, and the ball got loose and went out of bounds, allowing the Clippers to retain possession.

Verdict: good process, okay result

Lineup change! Pat Connaughton comes in for Bobby Portis, joining Donte, Khris, Giannis, and Brook.

  • 8:34 – On the baseline out-of-bounds play, Zubac sets a screen for a curling Lou Williams, who catches the inbound and takes an easy midrange shot. Donte once again gets held up on a screen, which is one of Zubac’s specialties. But again, every bucket matters in a close game, so this OoB play could have loomed large if the game went a different direction.

Verdict: bad process, bad result

  • 8:08 – Williams and Zubac again combine on a middle P&R. Donte goes over the screen while Brook hedges to prevent dribble penetration. Williams makes a tough bounce pass between the defenders to Zubac on a hard roll to the rim, and both Pat Connaughton and Giannis are there to contest the shot. Allowing a shot at the rim isn’t ideal, but funneling the ball into a shot against one of your best defenders is often a positive circumstance to create, especially when your defender can do this.

Verdict: okay process, good result

  • 7:36 – George and Zubac run another middle P&R. Khris goes under the screen but Brook again shows high and switches onto Paul George, who isolates on Lopez and drives towards the basket. Pat Connaughton helps off of Marcus Morris in the weak-side corner, who gets an easy catch-and-shoot opportunity. Milwaukee could have avoided a made corner three if Pat didn’t help off his man, but would that be worth softening the defense at the rim? Over the course of one possession, a made three is worth more than a made layup, but over a larger scale the quality of an offense’s shots increases as proximity to the basket decreases, which is one of the Bucks’ core principles. No matter which way you slice it, the Bucks are going to continue providing help at the rim, and our understanding of how modern offenses score points should illustrate why. Overhelping, however, is a habit the Bucks are regularly fighting and can turn the course of a game quickly, making it a delicate balance to strike.

Verdict: okay process, bad result

  • 7:10 – Williams and Zubac set up but abandon a wing P&R, passing instead to Paul George at the top of the floor. George pump fakes and drives on Giannis, kicking it out to Terrence Mann in the strong side corner. Mann then swings the ball to Marcus Morris on the left wing, who takes and misses a Donte-contested three.

Verdict: good process, good result

Lineup change! Jrue Holiday comes in for Donte, joining Pat, Khris, Giannis, and Brook.

  • 6:41 – Lou Williams and Morris run a middle P&R, covered by Jrue Holiday and Connaughton. Morris slips the screen and takes Holiday with him, switching Pat onto Williams. LA then runs a Williams-Zubac middle P&R, which the Bucks again switch, ending up with Pat on Zubac on the roll. Zubac catches the pass and tries a shot at the rim, which is contested by Giannis.

Verdict: good process, good result

Lineup change! DJ Augustin comes in for Khris, joining Jrue, Pat, Giannis, and Brook.

  • 5:55 – Williams runs a middle P&R with Ibaka, covered by Connaughton and Lopez. Once again, the Bucks switch after Brook shows high, taking Williams while Pat checks Ibaka. Kawhi (who just re-entered the game) gets the ball on the left wing and runs an inverted P&R with Williams, covered by Holiday and Lopez. Jrue goes over the screen while Brook shows high (above the free throw line). Jrue trails and doubles Kawhi from the top, and Kawhi gives the ball up to Williams at the top of the key. Giannis closes out on Williams to prevent the three, and Lou drives past after a pump fake and finds Marcus Morris open in the strong side corner. Jrue closes out late, but Morris misses the shot.

Verdict: bad process, good result

  • 5:45 – Off an offensive rebound, the Clippers go back into a Williams-Morris middle P&R. Jrue and Giannis cover and switch the action, ending in a Giannis-contested deep pull-up three from Williams off the short shot clock.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 5:15 – The ball goes from Lou Williams to Ibaka on the right wing, who enters the ball to Kawhi in a post up on the right logo with Jrue Holiday covering. Kawhi backs him down and works to the lane, Giannis helps from the weak side. Kawhi passes out to Marcus Morris on the left wing, who passes to Williams on the right wing, who takes the lane and drives for a floater. The shot is contested but a foul is called off the ball against Milwaukee. It is worth noting that the Bucks have not yet been called for a foul in the fourth quarter.

Verdict: good process, bad result

  • 5:03 – On the sideline inbounds, Williams finds Kawhi posting up again on the right logo, again covered by Jrue. Kawhi again works to the middle and takes a contested midrange jump shot. For 98% of NBA players, a contested midrange shot is a bad offensive outcome, but Kawhi Leonard is not 98% of NBA players since it’s a good shot for him. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it is a preferable outcome to an open layup or three pointer.

Verdict: okay process, bad result

  • 4:33 – Pat Beverley and Kawhi run a P&R on the wing, covered by Augustin and Holiday. Augustin goes under the screen while Jrue tags Beverley and recovers to Kawhi, both Bucks stay home. The Clippers reset the ball to the top and then enter the ball to Kawhi, posting up on Jrue on the right-side logo. Giannis roams early from the weak side and goes to the basket while Kawhi works to the middle, but Kawhi finds Marcus Morris open in the weak side corner. Once again, helping out is a staple of the Bucks’ defense, since giving up easy twos goes against their principles. However, Giannis could have allowed more space and trusted Jrue to stand up to Kawhi’s post game, which may have kept the corner three covered.

Verdict: bad process, bad result

  • 4:01 – Williams and Kawhi run another wing P&R, covered by Connaughton and Holiday. Kawhi shuffles on the screen to force the switch, taking Connaughton with him into a post-up on the right logo. Kawhi faces up and takes a contested midrange shot; under almost any circumstance, this outcome is favorable to the defense, but Kawhi Leonard hits the jumper.

Verdict: good process, bad result

Lineup change! Donte DiVincenzo comes in for Pat, who re-enters shortly after an offensive possession for Brook, and Khris comes in for Jrue, joining DJ and Giannis.

  • 3:23 – George and Leonard run a wing P&R, covered by Khris and Giannis. Kawhi again shuffles on the screen to force the switch, taking Khris with him. George tries to drive on Giannis but is forced to retreat, eventually taking a contested stepback three. This is the first of several possessions that Giannis and Middleton switch assignments, and the Clippers’ lack of ball movement forces them to settle for suboptimal shots.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 2:56 – Kawhi and PG13 run another wing P&R, covered by Giannis and Khris. Giannis goes over the screen, forcing Khris to step up and switch onto Kawhi. Leonard posts up and works to the middle, passing out to Morris on the right wing. Morris makes a skip pass to Nicolas Batum who’s open in the left corner, and Batum swings to George on the left wing for a three that Middleton contests.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 2:46 – Los Angeles controls the rebound off a Paul George miss, and Kawhi isolates on Giannis out of the left-side corner. Kawhi gives the ball up to Beverley at the top of the floor, who then tries to enter the ball to Marcus Morris posting up on DJ Augustin at the right-side logo. Augustin, however, fronts the post at the right time, coming up with a clutch steal. Anytime Augustin is on the floor opponents will hunt a mismatch in the post, and the Bucks were bailed out by Beverley’s bad pass and DJ’s excellent effort.

Verdict: bad process, good result

  • 2:13 – George and Kawhi run a wing P&R against Khris and Giannis, Kawhi once again forces the switch by taking Middleton with him. Kawhi starts a post-up at the left elbow and backs Khris down, but his first attempt is blocked by a timely double-team from Giannis at the top of the floor, and his second attempt is too heavily contested to even hit the rim, resulting in a shot clock violation. This possession involved a gamble from Giannis, but Leonard was apparently too fixated on getting his shot at his spot and since the angle of Giannis’ first contest came from the top of the floor and not anywhere underneath the basket, it would be harder for any ball-handler to see coming.

Verdict: good process, good result

Lineup change! Jrue Holiday comes in for Augustin, joining Donte, Pat, Khris, and Giannis.

  • 1:35 – George and Williams run an inverted middle P&R, covered by Middleton and DiVincenzo. Williams slips the screen, Donte shows hard on George but stays on his man. George gives up the ball to Morris on the right wing, who passes to Batum in the corner but gets it right back, and Morris gives the ball back to George at the top to try the inverted P&R with Williams again. Williams slips the screen again but this time Donte and Khris switch, allowing George to drive on DiVincenzo. George finds an angle and drives hard but Holiday helps off Batum in the weak-side corner and contests the shot at the rim. On previous possessions, the ball handler would give up the shot at the rim for an open three, and Milwaukee’s help principles pay off in a big way as Jrue forces a miss.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 1:09 – Kawhi and Nic Batum run a wing P&R against Giannis and Donte. Giannis gets held up by the screen, leaving Donte to switch onto Kawhi. Leonard passes to Batum at the right elbow, posting up on Giannis, who immediately gives the ball back to Kawhi. Donte gambles and tries to blow up the pass, but ends up fouling Leonard on the perimeter. The Clippers are not in the bonus, so the risk did not have significant downside, but Donte’s gamble would have given Kawhi an open lane towards the basket.

Verdict: okay process, okay result

  • 1:05 – Kawhi takes the inbound pass from the sideline at the top of the floor, isolated against Giannis. Kawhi, inexplicably, takes a stepback three (which Giannis contests). The Clippers had time to run their main action, but since Giannis and Khris had been able to handle the LA middle P&R by switching effectively, the Clippers did not seem to have a contingency plan...or Kawhi didn’t have the patience for it.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 0:35 – In a late transition situation, George and Morris run a middle P&R against Khris and Donte. Khris goes under the screen while Donte shows hard but manages to recover to Morris on the left wing while Khris recovers to contest George’s pull-up three. Once again, in this late game situation and down only one point, the Clippers’ first option does not present any shot opportunities, and George (like Kawhi on their last possession) tries to get it back on his own. Forcing an opponent to play hero ball looks bad when the opponent actually makes the shots, but they’re low-percentage attempts for a reason.

Verdict: good process, good result

  • 0:07 – Out of a timeout, George takes the inbound at the top of the floor against Middleton. Ibaka sets a nice screen for Kawhi on the right block, forcing Pat Connaughton to switch onto Kawhi at the arc. George passes to Kawhi for a quick three, but Connaughton contests the shot well.

Verdict: good process, good result


All in all, there are some good takeaways from this quarter, and this win. The Milwaukee Bucks have started to figure out how to effectively switch on defense, and used it to actually come out ahead in a game. They also used a small lineup, with Middleton at the 4 and Giannis at the 5, which helped fuel their offensive efforts without giving up too much on the other end. These are certainly useful experiences for later on in the postseason, but with two caveats:

  1. The Bucks will rightfully revert against a bigger opponent. With Ibaka as the center, Milwaukee can get away with a Jrue-Donte-Pat-Khris-Giannis lineup. Even with the much bigger (but less dynamic) Zubac, the Bucks have options to go small and survive on defense. Against a team with higher-level talent at center (particularly Philadelphia, in the Eastern Conference), the Bucks will need to use elements of their successful switching defense while keeping Brook Lopez on the floor...or finding ways to play Joel Embiid off of it.
  2. The Bucks will need to test their switching defense against an opponent with better guards. The Clippers are, with all due respect, a top-heavy team. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are among the best at their position, and they’ve gotten steady contributions from their other wings and bigs, but their backcourt of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Reggie Jackson doesn’t have the kind of dynamism that other backcourts across the league have. Los Angeles relied heavily on middle pick-and-rolls to create space for their wings to work with the ball, but how much of that was by design and how much was out of necessity? Against a team with better ball-handlers (like, say, the Brooklyn Nets), Milwaukee may not have such an easy time switching on defense. What can they adjust in that case, in order to come out ahead in a seven-game series?

The Bucks deserve a ton of credit for how they’ve evolved this season, and there is plenty of reason for optimism regarding the direction of their defense. As Giannis said during his postgame interview (and every member of the Bucks will say during any interview), the key to their success is using every day to get better, find ways to improve, and be ready for the playoffs. Thanks to the changes they’ve made and the adjustments they’re starting to understand better, the Bucks won this one and have plenty to build on going forward.