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A Mighty Milwaukee Bucks Smallball Unit Has Emerged this Playoffs

A smallball unit that can, in fact, ball while small

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For years, we’ve heard about how Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five seemed like a natural pathway for the Milwaukee Bucks to dominate the smallball evolution of the modern NBA. And for years, we never quite got to see it fully unleashed. Yes, there have been various permutations of it, with Marvin Williams, with Ersan Ilyasova, with Nikola Mirotic. And we all know how those went...but finally (finally!) in this year’s Playoffs, we’ve seen Coach Bud fully embrace a smallball unit to stellar success.

As always, massive caveats abound with these numbers; lineup data is tricky, and doubly so in small sample sizes, but that’s all we’ve got with postseason analysis. Toss as many “ya, buts” as you want and still, the stats speak for themselves about how the Holiday-Connaughton-Middleton-Tucker-Giannis lineups have been this postseason. Through 98 possessions, they have a +34.7 points per 100 possessions differential, per Cleaning The Glass. Here’s how they rate across the four key factors, both offense and defense. As a baseline reminder, I included how the Bucks rated out as a team across the whole regular season:

Just as a point of comparison, I thought I’d go back to the original “lineup of death” from the Golden State Warriors storied trip to the top in 2014-15 as the apex of a smallball unit that can do it all. Here are their postseason stats from that year (Per Cleaning the Glass):

From a personnel and “actual accomplishments” standpoint, there’s no comparison between the two. Plus, those defensive numbers, coupled with the offensive production are incredible. The Bucks have many more minutes (and far more difficult opposition) to go before the stats constitute a large enough sample size. Regardless, Milwaukee’s found success this postseason when Bud downsizes. So what’s been working for those groups? Well, for one, they’re scoring like the basket is 20-feet wide. But I’ve felt it acutely in how it’s disrupted the Hawks typical offensive rhythms, especially in Game Three. The crux of this series heading into it was basically Bud (and Brook Lopez’s) drop coverage against the floater/playmaking dynamism of Trae Young in the in-between spaces. Well, smallball sorta deflates that narrative, allowing the Bucks to switch 1-5. Here’s just one example from Game Three:

Their switchability has given Trae Young pause, far more than he’s shown through the first three periods of Games One and Three. Giannis meets him high off the halfcourt screen (a tactic the Nets employed to great aplomb with Durant) and Young is hesitant to go at him. He tries to pull-up directly as the switch would occur during the pick, but even after his splashes from the logo and pull-up make earlier in the fourth, the Bucks will live with Trae settling for these jumpers. The name of the game has been taking Young out of his preternatural feel for the offensive end. With these lineup constructions, he’s seemed to settle for more deep jumpers than attacking the underbelly of the defense.

Yes, there are more problems with rim protection and offensive rebounds with a Tucker-Antetokounmpo frontline, but their offensive production has more than made up for that. Plus, the Hawks haven’t seemed to nearly find as many easy looks down low — mitigating some of the rim issues inherent with the smaller construction. More importantly, they’re boxing up Young’s swagger. As shown in the clip above, the Bucks defenders prevent any semblance of a runway. Every time he comes around the screen expecting a catwalk, the Bucks are right there, dogging him.

Milwaukee has switched more 1-4 in this series with Lopez in, but this tinier grouping snuffs out Young’s driving juice in general. It does open up the Bucks to mismatches, and we’ve seen guys like Danilo Gallinari and John Collins get going in the mid-post area against Holiday and Connaughton, but these guys aren’t Kevin Durant. You’ll live with those shots almost every time, even if Collins is 10-12 and Gallo is 8-17 from midrange. Here, a Gallo drive is a huge win, even if the Bucks botch the defensive rebound. Giannis switches onto Huerter (and probably prevents a pass to Young under the rim with his length) while Middleton switches onto Gallo from Tucker and funnels him into a helpful Holiday contest.

The constant communication can also help make off-ball actions feel more inert provided the Bucks stay assignment sound (not always a guarantee) In the clip below one, you can see the Hawks actively trying to use Young floating through the lane as a way to draw attention away from Collins posting up on the elbow and empty that side of the floor. Khris Middleton actively points at Holiday and communications the switch. Ideally, Middleton might be the better defender, but he’s also carried a massive scoring load in the fourth and Holiday can fight for position at the elbow. After some jostling, the First Team All-Defensive guard gets the result he wants.

As for the offensive rebounding concerns? Well, that’s been the primary bugaboo hasn’t it. Over the course of the Playoffs, this lineup is allowing opponents to rebound 32.1% of their misses, well above Milwaukee’s near league-leading regular rate of 23.0% per Cleaning The Glass. The Hawks flew in repeatedly in Game One, soaring to victory on the wings of their offensive rebounding dynamos. They rarely had the opportunity to do as much of that in Game Three, where Capela largely sat on the bench leaving Collins as the lone threat. The funny part if you’re a Bucks fan...this Milwaukee lineup has been even more dominant on the offensive glass this postseason, grabbing 34% of their misses. Connaughton and Tucker may be small, but they’ve been massive on the offensive glass.

It all brings up an interesting quandary for Nate McMillan though, who opted to keep Clint Capela off the floor in Game Three. They could attack the glass, which tilted the series in their favor initially in Milwaukee, but the Bucks are decimating the Hawks transition defense. There’s only so many times you can Euro-foul before the Bucks will get a leak-out and seal against an undersized Hawks defender cowering beneath the hoop. Going small last night also helped Middleton get some airspace and finally crack through his slump.

The Bucks found dunks aplenty running basic pick-and-rolls with Giannis in Game One. Their smallball unit helped them keep up offensively, but they couldn’t snare enough rebounds to secure the win. In Game Three, they flummoxed Atlanta and got some math luck as their hot 3-point shooting fell back to earth. Maybe Brook Lopez finds success with the drop again and the Bucks don’t even need to breakout the smallball down the stretch in subsequent games. Overusing it could also overtax Giannis, making it a fascinating balance for both teams to ponder moving forward. With the series advantage back in Milwaukee’s favor though, the ball’s in Atlanta’s court.