The Milwaukee Bucks have a difficult path ahead. Standing between them and the NBA Finals are, in all likelihood, both teams sitting above them in the Eastern Conference regular season standings: the Brooklyn Nets and (probably) the Philadelphia 76ers. Both teams are a problem in their own right, but the Bucks won’t get to (probably) Philly unless they go through Brooklyn first...and the Nets are a tougher nut to crack.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the Brooklyn Nets are one of the most productive offenses in the history of the league. No, check that: the Nets are the most productive offense ever; per basketball-reference, Brooklyn’s offensive rating of 118.3 is a full half-point above the next highest all-time mark. They’re more efficient than last season’s record setters (the Dallas Mavericks at 116.7), more efficient than the best Golden State squad (2018-19, a rating of 115.9), more efficient than basically anybody. Ever.
How they do it requires little imagination: Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving are among the most skilled offensive players in the modern era (that is to say, in any era), because they can both score the ball and pass to teammates, and often enough, they’re passing to each other! Per Cleaning The Glass (subscription required), each of Durant (97th), Harden (93rd), and Irving (95th) are above the 90th percentile in points per shot attempt and above the 85th percentile for assist percentage, relative to their position.
But for all their excellence, Brooklyn’s Big Three is further elevated by the contributions of Joe Harris, a historically-great role player who elevates the Nets’ offense from “elite” to “ungodly.” Harris (47.5%) leads the league in three-point percentage, a feat he achieved once already back in 2018-19. But he’s more than just a sharpshooter; because of his gravity and movement, the defense is bent into ways that are impossible to recover from, and the Boston Celtics are the latest victim. Per CtG, Brooklyn creates 10.8% more shots at the rim and 14.1% more three-point attempts than the playoff average when Harris is on the court.
It’s no surprise that these main four starters (Durant, Harden, Irving, and Harris) have played the vast majority (57%) of the Nets’ postseason minutes, with the remaining minutes being split between Blake Griffin (as the starting center), Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, and Nic Claxton. When Brooklyn’s main four starters are on the floor, they generate a fairly balanced distribution of shots: 34.3% of attempts are at the rim, 34.3% are threes, and the remaining 31.4% are midrange shots. Against the Celtics in the playoffs, the Nets have shifted heavily towards three pointers (43.4% of attempts across 154 possessions when Irving, Harden, Harris, and Durant are on the floor), making them even more dangerous.
How do you beat that? Where are the Nets vulnerable?
Milwaukee needs a number of variables to fall in their favor in order to level the playing field, and they’ll be doing it without Donte DiVincenzo for the foreseeable future. First and foremost, Milwaukee will need to focus on controlling the glass on both sides of the court. This has been a strength during the Mike Budenholzer Era; with Brook Lopez boxing out and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s incomparable length, Milwaukee has registered defensive rebounding rates of 80.3% (1st), 81.6% (1st), and 79.7% (3rd) over the past three regular seasons. It was only this season that the Bucks started crashing the offensive boards, collecting 25.7% of their own misses. Brooklyn already allowed a fairly high percentage (26.2%) of offensive rebounds during the regular season, and against the Celtics that figure ballooned all the way up to 34.1%. Considering the rate at which Milwaukee takes threes, getting second chance possessions against the undersized Nets front court (Griffin is 6’10” but has limited athleticism and mobility, Claxton is 6’11” but only 215 lbs, and Jordan hasn’t played this postseason) will be crucial to their chances at keeping up with Brooklyn’s scoring.
Generating points with extra possessions can also be accomplished by forcing turnovers, something that the Bucks are not known for. Since 2018-19, Milwaukee has ranked 24th or lower in opponent turnover percentage, and (per Cleaning The Glass) this season has actually seen the lowest non-garbage time turnover rate (12.8%) in decades. Despite his penchant for getting burnt on bad gambles, this is an area where DiVincenzo’s absence looms large, since both Kevin Durant (13.9%) and James Harden (14.2%) have below-average rankings relative to their positions, and Brooklyn’s backcourt depth is uninspiring.
More than anything, Milwaukee’s keys to success will be leaning on their strengths enough to compensate for Brooklyn leaning on their own. In three games against the Nets, the Bucks allowed 44.7% from long range. That number may feel like a death knell, but Milwaukee can try and make up the difference by pummeling Brooklyn inside on offense and limiting free throw attempts on defense, two aspects of the game that the Bucks have long excelled at. On defense, avoiding fouls has been a specialty, and in the regular season Milwaukee has been able to keep opponents at 18.8 free throws per game. Brooklyn will of course pull in the other direction because of how dynamic their main usage players are, but even in those three regular season matchups the Nets were held below their averages for foul shots (22.5 FTA on the year vs. 21.3 against the Bucks). It’s not a clear advantage, but the Bucks can keep themselves in a game when whistles are held.
All of the aspects we’ve weight thus far are tertiary, if we’re being honest. Turnovers and offensive rebounds are part effort, part luck, and it’s often that luck is the more important ingredient. The Bucks and Nets each shoot a ton of threes, but Brooklyn is the bigger threat by a significant margin. So, if the Bucks can overcome the Nets, it will be in part due to their ability to overcome math. Brooklyn relies heavily on the three-point shot, and while Milwaukee leans on it themselves they also boast one of the best rim-finishers in the NBA playoffs. That finisher?
Draymond is an excellent analyst but he just gave away that he hasn't watched the Bucks since the All-Star break. https://t.co/rO1zkCeeaq— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) June 2, 2021
Above is Brook’s shot chart against the Miami Heat. He has a handful of three point attempts, from the wings and the corners, but the majority of his shots are happening in the paint, where he literally threw his weight around against the undersized Miami defense. As Adam noted in his ode to Splash Mountain last week, Lopez has transitioned away from the three-point line and back to his old stomping grounds, putting shoulders and elbows into dudes to get close range shots up.
He’s taking 15% fewer shots from beyond the arc, which has essentially been his role the past two seasons. It’s what made him remarkably relevant in the modern NBA, but as defenses have adapted, it’s also grown stagnant and allowed them to place undersized defenders on Lopez knowing they simply have to get a hand in his face on the perimeter. For all the hullabaloo about his emergence, his still around a 35% 3-point shooter, and Milwaukee’s fallen down the last two postseasons due to iffy shooting from its role players. Post-ASB, Brook has moved more 3-point shots to attempts inside the arc, namely at the rim. He took the highest percentage of his shots at the rim since the 2015-16 season, when he had 40% of shots from there.
Much and more has been made about the opportunity Giannis has to define his legacy in this series, against this opponent, and those takes are still correct. The two-time NBA MVP earned his accolades by scoring at the rim better than anyone since Shaq, and there is no question that the Bucks will need every ounce (and then some) of juice that he can squeeze from that rock. He might have an all-time series, and the Bucks will desperately need any bit of it. Brooklyn didn’t particularly care to defend Giannis’ drives during the regular season, and they don’t have many players who are credible threats to defend him now. But a series victory – and the right to take another step towards a championship round appearance – will need to rely on more than just the exploits of Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez’s post proficiency may be the key that lets the Bucks overcome the basketball math problem (“3 > 2”) that they’ve grown so accustomed to over the past three years.
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