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Go Big, or Not Go Big: That is the Question

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...it really shouldn’t be a question though!

NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Through three games of this NBA Finals, I can’t stop thinking about Giannis Antetokounmpo growing to godlike basketball status, but he’s gotten plenty of pub already. Burrow past the Greek Freak’s apartment in my brain though, and you’ll find a hallway closet jumbled with wonderings about how this series is the first time across three postseason runs that I’ve seen Mike Budenholzer move away from Brook Lopez on the court. He’s still a pivotal rotation piece, but at 24.0 minutes per game through three contests, it’s his lowest since averaging 25.3 against the Boston Celtics back in 2019. His averages this year have been anywhere from 28.5 against Miami to 33.3 against Brooklyn.

It hasn’t curbed the big fella’s production for the most part though, averaging 12 points and 5.7 boards per game thus far in the Finals. Still he’s at -12 overall in this series despite the Milwaukee Bucks being +60 overall with Brook on the court throughout the Playoffs. In a series where the overall margin is a measly three, every itty bitty advantage matters.

Thus far, Milawaukee has been slightly worse with Brook on the court, but I can’t help but feel like Bud has been bamboozled a bit by Phoenix’s big man DeAndre Ayton. His soft touch and adept feet make him someone that can function in smallball lineups with Giannis at center, but his skillset really is more that of a traditional center akin to Brooklyn Brook. Despite that, it feels like Bud continues pulling Lopez off the floor. Early in Game Three, he went to those smallball lineups that worked so well in the Playoffs up to this point, but they haven’t found success against the Suns. Let’s look at Bud’s most common lineups in the Finals so far:

Bucks Finals Lineups

LINEUPS MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO OREB% DREB% TOV% EFG% TS% PACE
LINEUPS MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO OREB% DREB% TOV% EFG% TS% PACE
.P. Tucker, .B. Lopez, .J. Holiday, .K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo 34 131.4 97.2 34.2 47.2 3.4 27.6 82.9 7.1 63.5 64.1 100.22
.P. Tucker, .J. Holiday, .K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo, .P. Connaughton 25 100 118.9 -18.9 61.9 1.63 13 68.2 15.1 55.8 56.4 101.71
.J. Teague, .K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo, .B. Portis, .P. Connaughton 12 117.4 108.7 8.7 60 2 11.1 50 13 67.6 68.7 95.86
.P. Tucker, .B. Lopez, .J. Holiday, .K. Middleton, .P. Connaughton 8 127.8 116.7 11.1 60 0 41.7 66.7 0 52.3 52.3 103.08
.J. Holiday, .K. Middleton, .G. Antetokounmpo, .P. Connaughton, .B. Forbes 7 111.1 106.7 4.4 28.6 0.67 33.3 100 16.7 61.5 67.8 111.58

These minute loads are WAY too small to extrapolate anything that broad, but the first takeaway to me is that the smallball crew is watching the Suns take it to them like a wrecking ball. In the 55 minutes Holiday-Connaughton-Middleton-Tucker-Giannis played throughout the Playoff’s first three rounds, they boasted a 29.1 net rating. Now...not so much. So many times this series, we’ve seen this typically switchy lineup get taken to task by Ayton down low with an easy bucket. Whether it’s Tucker or Holiday, they have to fight like hell to get around the Suns center and front him to make the entry pass difficult. Even then, he’s got soft enough hands and Chris Paul is an adept enough passer to deliver it to a place he can snag it. Their best hope is that Giannis’s length can obscure the passing lane.

Milwaukee didn’t have to face that issue all that much in Game Three with DeAndre Ayton playing only 24 minutes, but I’m dubious that kind of foul trouble is a repeatable strategy for the remainder of this series. If the Suns go small, it seems sensible on paper to match their size and see if that tiny crew can regain some of their magic, but I think Bud should keep leaning into size. If you look at Phoenix’s third quarter run, a majority of it came before Bud opted to return size to the game and put Bobby Portis in for P.J. Tucker. Here’s the substitution sequence from Game Three’s third period:

  • 10:25 - Bucks lead 63-49; Cam Johnson enters for DeAndre Ayton
  • 9:32 - Bucks lead 65-52; Pat Connaughton enters for Brook Lopez
  • 4:49 - Bucks lead 77-70; Bobby Portis enters for PJ Tucker

After that Portis substitution, he immediately grabbed two offensive rebounds and Milwaukee either got free throws or a triple out of them. For the remainder of the period, Bud kept at least two of Portis/Giannis/Lopez on the floor and Milwaukee went into the fourth period up 98-76. Size reigned supreme as Milwaukee dominated with second chances (en route to a 20-2 advantage for the game) and Giannis exerted his will over a diminutive Suns frontline.

One thing has rung true so far: I’m not sure the Giannis-Tucker frontline is an asset this series. This Suns team can rotate well, with a cadre of wing defenders capable of snuffing out penetration. On top of that, if Ayton is on the floor, their switchability doesn’t seem like an asset given Phoenix’s ability to find their rolling big man inside. Still, it is the Bucks’ second most used lineup this series, so I imagine we’ll see it again. It takes away Milwaukee’s beef though, their most potent advantage in my view.

Giving more run to the shadow realm’s starting five (Holiday-Middleton-Connaughton-Giannis-Lopez) is something I wouldn’t mind seeing a tad more of, as they’ve played merely four minutes this series. That lineup frees up Giannis to either guard Ayton and switch (which might necessitate a secondary scram switch with Lopez camped on a different defender) or work as a help defender and switch 1-4. It would require Connaughton to hold his own against Phoenix’s backcourt, but he showed a decent ability to do so in spurts. That grouping simply contains more two-way ability, including Lopez, who can act as a defensive anchor but also offer similar size on the offensive end if Milwaukee wants to go on an all-out paint assault. Especially if Jrue and Khris are struggling, the Bucks need another consistent offensive threat — Game Two was a perfect example — and I think Brook’s better attuned to the type of drop coverage required this series now.

The other option is more Bobby Portis of course, who has come out smelling like roses thus far in terms of net rating. Milwaukee is at +6.5 with him on the court and -2.7 while off in the series. He’s like catnip for the home crowd and his instant energy clearly had an impact in that third quarter Milwaukee run that put Phoenix away for good. He can also attack mismatches off the dribble, even if that’s not always the ideal scenario. My main misgiving with Portis is that his defensive approach suddenly seems murky. We saw him switch capably against Atlanta, and did the same in Game One against Phoenix, but he eventually started getting cooked by the Phoenix guards when he was stuck guarding them for 15+ seconds a possession. We’ve seen him operating the drop again against the Suns — a blood pressure raiser if ever there was one. It wasn’t long ago he admitted the aggressive blitz was his preferred style of play, and I’m just not sure how he’ll hold up over the course of the series against Phoenix’s ruthless guards and surgical precision.

Still, Portis’s success is proof of a modus operandi Bud should employ going forward: Go big or go home. Milwaukee boasts a size advantage at virtually every position with their starting lineup, a group that’s +23 so far this series in 34 minutes. The Suns starters are +24 in 60 minutes. The beefy Los Angeles Lakers were the only other team to really make this Phoenix team sweat before Anthony Davis went down with an injury. Slowly but surely, Milwaukee is eroding the paint protection that made Phoenix’s defense so deadly this postseason.

So far, the Suns are allowing 65.2% shooting on 29.7 FGA in the restricted area this series. The Bucks have steadily improved their number of shots from that prime location and punctuated it with a 72.7% game on 33 attempts in Game 3. They’re trending in the right direction towards flipping Phoenix’s rim protection, with the help of Ayton facing foul trouble. On top of that, the Bucks frontline has only allowed Phoenix to take 23.7% of their shots at the rim. The Suns ranked last in that stat (27%) during the regular season, but still, that means Milwaukee is dictating Phoenix’s shot location and their size has held them to just 60.4% shooting in the RA (they were at 67% in regular season) despite Ayton’s success down low.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s offensive rebounding rate is up to 29.2%, nearing their Playoff-long mark of 30.5%. With their volatile three-point shooting, Milwaukee needs to dominate paint finishing and second chance points if they hope to ultimately pull out this series. Both areas of interest benefit from Milwaukee going big, and staying big. Brook Lopez remains at the center of that equation, but Bud leaned into Portis with his more reliable stroke from deep and penchant for running the floor to help get the team in transition. Hopefully, we’ll get several more games to keep monitoring how Bud approaches his frontcourt calculations against this smaller Phoenix team.