One of the byproducts of the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly winning is the tamping down of chatter about all their potential weaknesses. It’s never fun to be the proverbial turd in the punch bowl when the punch is “seven straight win”-flavored. Still, this team’s methodical evolution has brought a different, and possibly more rewarding energy to this season. The early season struggles do, actually, seem like they’re paying off with better cohesion defensively and offensively. Let’s wrap up.
The Week That Was
- Milwaukee 109, Philadelphia 105 (Bucks Steal Win in Philly)
- Milwaukee 120, San Antonio 113 (Bucks Claw Past Spurs)
- Milwaukee 140, Indiana 113 (Bucks Obliterate Pacers)
I spared myself of the cavalcade of excuses that I can guarantee resonated across the airwaves and in Zoom rooms across the Philadelphia area after Milwaukee won a game they had no business winning. Sure, Ben Simmons played solid defense on Giannis. You know what else Giannis did, score 32. Simmons seemed to stonewall the reigning MVP with Kawhi-like efficiency, but Giannis’s growth was evident as he found other ways to work mismatches and still score effectively. Solid progress, what a shame it had to come at the hands of the 76ers. The final stats of the San Antonio game reads like the Spider-Man meme. Milwaukee’s proclivity for the long ball was the optimum difference, but otherwise Pop’s team value the ball and don’t foul their opponent. Their midrange snipers couldn’t outshoot the Bucks, who manufactured points and hit key triples late to pull away with it. The Pacers game was a shorthanded 61.5% 3-point runaway train that plowed through Pacer-land.
Here’s the 9-second recap of the Bucks game: pic.twitter.com/ek6E78balX— Frank Madden (@fmaddenNBA) March 23, 2021
Ugh, this week may have featured plenty of intriguing coaching moves by Bud, from the late swap-in of Connaughton to the starting lineup against Indiana to the occasional zone looks against San Antonio. Unfortunately, his team’s first play execution left plenty to be desired. So, I’m not gonna highlight any of them. Sorry Sargento. The zone was far more interesting.
Here’s the first instance of it employed against San Antonio. What stands out immediately is that, even coming out of a timeout, Bud has Giannis at the top of the zone. I’m not sure if that was purposeful, or a product of Giannis being matched up on Drew Eubanks and thus, finding himself atop the zone as the possession rolled along.
Regardless, what it resulted in was a Keldon Johnson pull-up floater. Johnson was a menace punishing his way to the rim that entire contest, and at the very least this look threw him off and forced him into a slightly tougher shot where he didn’t draw contact either. It also lets Portis maneuver a smidge less and it kept him out of the pick-and-roll coverage where he’d normally have to execute the drop scheme. All-in-all, a success. We’ve seen an occasional zone look from Bud, but he went back to it for a second straight possession afterwards.
In this set, Giannis stakes his claim at the bottom of the zone alongside Bobby Portis, while Donte DiVincenzo and Khris Middleton hound the guards up top and play passing zones. Zone looks usually require outside shooting and penetration by the offense to help force the defenders to break ranks and manipulate the shell they form around the basket and the perimeter. Here, rookie Devin Vassell screams through the lane for a pass from Rudy Gay. However, he doesn’t get to pull up quickly over Bobby Portis, instead, Giannis flies over from his position, while Bobby shifts back to box out Drew Eubanks beneath the rim. Vassell’s shot misses, and the zone did its job.
Who knows how much more we’ll see of zone this year, but it’s fun to see it employed with Bud’s real weapons rather than in a 53-minute Tim Frazier marathon context. Plus, I’m curious if it’s a better fit for the limited minutes when Bud throws out Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, two of their weaker defensive cogs. Speaking of the Underdog, let’s bark about him.
On the StruggleBucks
All things told, Bobby Portis has already exceeded any expectations I had for him. Whatever selfish, inefficient persona I envisioned coming in, that shell has molted and something far purer has emerged offensively in Bud’s ecosystem. Per game, he’s averaging 10.8 points, 6.9 rebounds on shooting splits of 53.5/46.9/71.4. Compare it to his season with the Knicks last year, where he averaged nearly identical minutes per game and field goal attempts, and he’s more efficient and effective across the board.
Portis Stats by Season
Of late, he’s definitely found the 3-point ball a bit wanting. After nearly riding his hot hand to the top of the league’s leaderboards, he’s gone 7-20 (35%) since the All-Star Break from deep. His volume is so low that just one game of 0-2 can skew it easily, but I have to imagine there will be some continued regression this second half of the season. Still, it seemed like a good time to check up on a player who came into the season with clear question marks, but is quite clearly going to be a key part of Bud’s Playoff rotation.
One of the first things that stands out about Portis this year is that he’s actually taking a smaller percentage of his shots from three than with the Knicks. It’s near his career average, but I figured it would would shoot up considerably within Bud’s system. The funny thing about his shot distribution is how uniform it is across his career. Bobby is Bobby, I suppose. His 3-point percentage is the headliner, but he’s also one of the contributors to Milwaukee’s piping-hot percentage at the rim. He’s hitting 70% of his shots there, which is only in the 64th percentile among Bigs on Cleaning The Glass, but is a significant improvement from his history in that area when he’s generally ranked in the 35th percentile or lower. One season, he shot just 55% on 269 attempts. For a 6’11” guy, that’s YIKES.
His versatility as a big, a vastly different player than Brook Lopez, has been an intriguing sparkplug for Bug. Let’s look at that abysmal Utah game earlier this year for some examples. First, he could post-up a smaller Royce O’Neale and go to work for an easy bucket after O’Neale tried to pull the chair out.
Normally, you don’t want Bobby posting up all that much, but if it’s to take advantage of a mismatch you can probably live with it. Especially against a smallball lineup with no Gobert. The more enticing part of his game this season has definitely been the bit of mobility he’s shown as a big to complement his shooting ability across the floor.
Here, with Gobert in the game, he cuts his roll short for a midrange pull-up. Not the most efficient shot, but he’s nailing 48% of them this year. He’s also able to tackle competent rolls, nimbly getting past the DPOY candidate to slip in a layup. The biggest difference for him, from a tactical standpoint this season, has been his move to almost exclusively a center. Basketball Reference has his positional estimate at 81% center, 19% power forward. Before that, his highest percentage at center over the course of a season was 56%.
Perhaps playing against larger players makes it easier for him to rock off 3-pointers with such deadly accuracy, or take advantage of his speed to get to the rim for easier looks. The stats show that he’s not necessarily getting a higher percentage of open looks in comparison to his past seasons. His usage is near a career-low though, which has made it all the more important that he’s delivered when given the opportunity.
What playing primarily as the center has forced Portis to do though is try and execute Bud’s zone drop scheme. He’s also switched when asked to, but the meat of his season has been dropping into the paint and try to deter opponents or at least free up enough time for Giannis to recover and force misses at the rim. It’s been noted that Milwaukee’s rim defense isn’t nearly as potent as last year, when they held opponents to an absurd 55.1% at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. This season, it’s at 62.1%. They are allowing a fewer percentage of shots at the rim than last year though, another byproduct of their scheme that usually leads to less than ideal outcomes for the other team.
Portis has never been known as a rim protector, and he’s kept up that reputation in Milwaukee. Bucks opponents shoot 4.9% better at the rim when he’s on the floor (although a little worse from short and long midrange!) Still, credit to Portis, who on an individual level, per NBA.com, has actually improved his defensive field goal percentage at the rim to 58.8% this year after several past seasons in the mid-60’s or even 70%.
The real problem for Bobby is when he’s paired with anyone but Giannis Antetokounmpo. Which, to be fair, is really the problem for anyone on this Bucks roster. Still, he’s not a great defensive player, and he doesn’t boost the offense to such a degree that he should be saddled with that burden. In the 901 possessions that Cleaning The Glass has where Portis has been on the floor without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have a -6.1 point per 100 possessions differential. And while they score at an okay clip (114.2 per 100 possessions) their 120.1 defensive mark would be worse than Sacramento’s league worst defensive rating. In 611 possessions without Brook or Giannis, those numbers grow a teensy bit darker. That’s not a small number of possessions either! It’s roughly 15% of the 4050 possessions Cleaning The Glass has overall for Milwaukee.
This isn’t that revelatory, we knew Portis would struggle defensively. Hopefully, having P.J. Tucker can alleviate some of the defensive deficiencies of Portis-as-only-big lineup. All that being said, the Bucks haven’t been a trainwreck at all with Bobby on the floor overall this year. Per Cleaning The Glass, they have a -5.3 per 100 possessions differential with him on the floor, but when compared to some of the gaudy (Giannis at +15.5), middling (Brook at +2.6) or meh (Middleton at +0.1) numbers, that’s not ideal.
It’s possible that switching more, or even employing zone as we saw above, could help Portis defensively so he’s not as much the fulcrum of a team’s entire scheme. He’s also given the team a genuine scoring jolt off the bench and a more mobile big that runs the floor and navigates it offensively in a dramatically different way than their Brook facsimile did last year. He’s outplayed his contract, and given Horst just had to jettison his marquee FA signing from last season, we should be fairly thankful for that. Let’s see how Portis continues to settle in as the team finds its groove in the second half.
This is starting to get out of hand as Giannis grabs a tighter hold on the team’s steering wheel. He’s making the right reads, dishing the ball when he needs to, accelerating to the tin when needed and knocking down his free throws. With his level of confidence, it’s gonna be tough for Khris or Jrue to snag any more of these weekly MVPs. However, missing one game might open the door a crack this week. Let’s see if Khris or Jrue, who shined as a dominant ball handler against the Pacers, can steal one.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2 GP: 29.0 pts, 11.5 reb, 10.0 ast)
The back-to-back MVP tonight:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 21, 2021
26 PTS | 15 AST | 8 REB pic.twitter.com/4ay18Uvavj
Khris Middleton (3 GP: 21.0 pts, 5.7 reb, 3.7 ast, 1.0 stl)
Khris tonight against the Pacers:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 23, 2021
25 PTS | 8 REB | 6 AST pic.twitter.com/iMAFHYI8gc
Jrue Holiday (3 GP: 22.7 pts, 5.3 reb, 7.7 ast, 1.7 stl)
Jrue wasn’t playing around tonight:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 23, 2021
28 PTS | 14 AST | 5 REB | 2 STL | 1 BLK pic.twitter.com/VoC5U1H4v4
Week 12: The Bucks MVP was...
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Another wwwwwwwrap-up in the books. As always, thanks for reading.