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Why Can’t The Bucks Shoot Anymore?

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Milwaukee’s shooting has fallen off a cliff in the playoffs...and their championship hopes may be tied to it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
clang

What’s that noise?

thunk

Do you hear that?

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The Milwaukee Bucks, who scraped and scrapped and slogged their way to victory in Game 3 over the Brooklyn Nets, are in a 2-1 hole in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for a number of reasons. One of the most glaring ones is that they simply can’t shoot anymore. Milwaukee has a massive size advantage (pun intended) in this series, and they’re not maximizing that advantage, but they’re usually able to buoy their scoring output with their three-point shooting, especially this year. In this NBA Playoffs series, that is not the case. What gives?

We’ve talked about the Bucks’ long and storied history with the three-ball before. Most recently in March, we celebrated the elevation of Milwaukee’s shooting ceiling via both the offseason roster improvements and internal development, which had pushed the Bucks’ scoring to new heights. In the regular season, Milwaukee ended up tied for 4th overall in the NBA (0.389 3P%), matched with the Utah Jazz and behind only the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers, and...you guess it, the Brooklyn Nets.

That trend has not just stopped in the playoffs; it slammed the brakes, pulled the eject lever, and is currently sprinting in the opposite direction. As of June 11, Milwaukee is averaging 29.2% on three-point shots this postseason, second only to the already-eliminated Washington Wizards for the worst mark in the playoffs. The Bucks’ drop in accuracy of nearly ten points (-9.7) is seemingly without precedent; they can’t hit anything from outside right now, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is only part of that problem (among many other problems). Whatever it is, it’s effecting everybody in the rotation who is relied upon to hit those shots.

Something is going on with the Bucks’ offense. A big component is Giannis himself, who has routinely hijacked possessions to let it fly from deep, with predictable results. And although he took eight – eight! – of those in Game 3, his teammates are also not converting on their attempts. And it’s never been quite this bad.


Here’s what I wrote back in March, discussing Milwaukee’s improvements and what it meant for their regular season:

The internal improvements and external additions have all come together to kick Milwaukee’s offense into overdrive, without necessarily demanding unsustainable production from the team’s trio of star-level players. That is a big-time investment in the postseason.

More importantly than the ceiling being raised, though, is that the team’s floor remains relatively stable and is not decreased to the same extent as their ceiling is increased. This might seem counterintuitive, but the common perception that teams that rely heavily on threes are prone to cold streaks that prove to be fatal in the postseason is not necessarily at play in Milwaukee. We can use standard deviation, which we also used in January 2020, to explore what that means.

Last season when we made these measurements, the Bucks rated as one of the most consistent shooting teams in the league. Their standard deviation was (at the time) the second-lowest in the NBA, meaning that they had a smaller expected window for their overall shooting output to fall within. As of now, their standard deviation remains low (although the low number of games means that the sample size is fairly small), suggesting that Milwaukee ought to perform at about this same level for the rest of the regular season.

As expected, the Bucks’ remained steady through the end of the regular season when measuring their shooting performances relative to the expected upper and lower limits of their “window,” defined as their average 3P% plus/minus one standard deviation. This was consistent with the previous two years; although the ceiling was higher in 20-21, the floor remained steady at just under one-third. In the two years prior, this also held up in the playoffs with only some slight variance. Now? Not so much...

Milwaukee’s three-point shooting performance has been so bad in these last seven games that not only is their playoffs average below 30%, their expected averages by St.Dev. has their high point (36.9%) lower than their regular season average (38.9%). That means that by shooting in one game with the same accuracy as they did all year long, which was clearly sustainable over 72 games, would be considered a statistical outlier.


The chart above has two components: the blue bars are each individual game’s 3P% for Milwaukee since the Bud Era started (2018-19 through 20-21, regular season and postseason), and the white line is a three-game rolling average. The rolling average gives us a sense of which direction the team is trending at any point, and lets us smooth out some of the spikes in the data and get a better visual representation of how variance affects a team in a shorter timeframe, which also applies to playoff series. In this playoff series against the Nets, the Bucks currently are sporting a rolling average of 0.227, which is the lowest this metric has ever fallen since Mike Budenholzer joined the team.

Great timing, right?


So what does this all mean? Optimists might see the percentages that currently reside in the toilet of an abandoned Arby’s bathroom and start thinking “mean regression!” They might be right; the last time Milwaukee’s three-game rolling average fell below 30% this season, it was March 2021 and the Bucks were at the very beginning of an 8-game winning streak. Before that, in January 2020, they were at the very beginning of a 9-game streak, and before that in November 2019, they were at the very beginning of an 18-game (!) stretch of consecutive victories.

These are all regular season events, though; in the playoffs the last two years, the Bucks’ three-game rolling average dipped below 30% in Game 4 against the Bubble Heat...and before that, it dipped below 30% against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite all their tinkering, Milwaukee is still operating like a team built for the grind of the regular season. They have peaks and valleys with their performance, just like any other team, but with enough time they pull themselves out of those slumps and end up performing at a higher level. They’ve proved that, time and time again...but in this series against the Brooklyn Nets, they are running out of time.

To me, it doesn’t matter that they won Game 3 ugly. It matters that they approached Game 3 with the same sort of strategy that they brought with them to Games 1 and 2, and whether it was a failure of preparation or a failure of execution, the Bucks won by virtue of Brooklyn playing quite poorly more than anything else. There were some changes made on the margins, and Coach Bud seems (finally) willing to ride his stars for the heavy minutes loads the the postseason demands, but at some point the offense cannot simply rely on the principles that propelled them to success in the regular season.

Brooklyn has dictated the terms of engagement and Milwaukee has, thus far, been more than willing to play by the Nets’ rules, which in no universe are built to favor anybody but the Nets because they have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden (once he returns from injury). The Bucks are playing far too much isolation ball and are not handling switches the way that they should. In the regular season and in Game 1, Milwaukee was able to leverage their size advantage without belaboring the point and attacked the paint, and the offense simply worked better even if the shots weren’t falling. Milwaukee’s shooters are due for a change in the winds and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more swishes on Sunday, but a win in Game 4 and beyond is going to depend on more than just hope.