More often than not, the offense takes what the defense gives it. Undoubtedly, everyone’s heard that sports cliché before.
Choosing what to give, though, then becomes incredibly important. For the Milwaukee Bucks (2-0), the decision about what to allow has been drastically different in the small sample of this season compared to years past as they head into Monday’s 7 p.m. meeting with the New York Knicks (1-2) at Fiserv Forum.
After years of getting killed by the most sought-after shots in the league — corner three-pointers and buckets in the restricted area close to the basket — the Bucks have taken a new approach under coach Mike Budenholzer. Instead of the more aggressive trapping and hedging actions seen under former coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks are helping less and sinking their centers more against pick-and-rolls.
The results resemble the dream scenario for the analytics-minded. Through the first two games, the Bucks have allowed just five corner three-point attempts and limited clean looks up close. They’ve chosen to funnel their opponents to the mid-range, especially outside the paint. Those shots are worth less than those outside the arc and are harder to make with regularity than those in the paint.
“Those are the shots we want,” said Bucks center Brook Lopez, who played in a similar system in Brooklyn under coach Kenny Atkinson, a former Budenholzer assistant. “We’re confident if we limit them to those shots as much as we possibly can, limit them to one shot, get the rebound and get out and do our thing offensively we’re going to be tough to beat every night.”
Introducing the new scheme and breaking old habits involved Budenholzer putting his team through drill after drill during training camp. Communication from the team’s big men is a critical part of the process, as they need to let the guards know where the screen is coming from, what coverage they’re playing and where the help is going to be.
Once that is all in place, especially in pick-and-roll situations, the guards need to do their best to fight through screens and recover. Often this season, Milwaukee’s bigs have sunk back on pick-and-rolls, choosing to play center field and prioritize cutting off a path to the rim instead of being up on the ball-handler.
The choice for the offensive player, then, is to take a fairly open mid-range shot, go for a contested drive or kick a pass out to someone who is likely still being covered by a defender.
“We’re trying to make it tough on our opponents,” point guard Eric Bledsoe said. “I think we’re doing a great job of covering for each other and just playing with effort, energy and competing.”
The adjustment to this style of defense has been an especially big one for the Bucks’ guards and most notably Bledsoe. In the season opener against Charlotte, it was on his watch that Hornets point guard Kemba Walker went off for 41 points.
As a proud defender, that’s something that didn’t sit well with Bledsoe even after he was informed Budenholzer had praised his effort in the immediate aftermath of the game.
“I was kind of salty,” Bledsoe said. “But going back and watching the film, nobody else really scored the ball. For one player to beat us, good luck.”
Budenholzer recognizes how something like that can be hard for his guards, including Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Donte DiVincenzo. No one likes to be scored on, but he keeps an open dialogue with them and appreciates their efforts to fight through screens and attempt to contest from behind without fouling.
“I think it’s a little foreign to think that he did a great job, but I stand by it,” Budenholzer said of Bledsoe’s performance against the Hornets.
Contesting shots, especially from behind, is something Bledsoe has shown an aptitude for. Already a good shot-blocker as a guard, Bledsoe has the right mix of basketball IQ, athleticism and arm length to block shots from behind in the mid-range even after fighting through a screen.
On Friday against the Pacers, Bledsoe blocked a pair of 16-footers taken by Victor Oladipo, including coming from behind to slap one out of bounds.
“It’s the bait game,” Bledsoe said of blocking shots from behind. “You’ve watched a player play for so long, like J.J. Redick, you know he’s coming off to shoot them quick. He’s trying to get that foul. I just jump early and try to get it before he jumps. I kind of really anticipate knowing player personnel.”
Two games into the season, the results generally have been positive for Milwaukee’s defense. Opponents are shooting just 28 three-pointers per game (24th in the NBA) and converting just 46.3% of their two-pointers (25th). It’s a small sample, but it represents progress compared to last year and a positive transition to a new system.
Of course, over time, teams are going to adjust to Milwaukee’s approach or refuse to take what the defense gives. Sometimes the Bucks will need to trap and sometimes they’ll need to switch on pick-and-rolls, for example.
While things are currently working as they were designed to, the Bucks still spend time working on different coverages to prepare for future challenges, whether they need to mix up their strategies for a specific opponent or multiple times within the same game.
“I think we’re going to do a few different things,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve only played two games and the preseason, so hopefully we’re able to change things up and do different things.”