For the first time this season, the Milwaukee Bucks looked out of sorts defensively on Thursday. During that game, a 117-113 loss to the Boston Celtics, they protected the rim well but offered much less resistance along the perimeter where the Celtics made 24 of their 55 three-point attempts.
Back at practice on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. game against the Sacramento Kings at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks weren’t in a rush to make sweeping defensive changes.
“We’re not questioning anything,” rookie guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “Some days some teams are just knocking down shots and you have to make an adjustment. That’s what happened that game. We had to make an adjustment and it worked. It was just a little bit too late.”
The adjustments will continue to come when necessary. When teams like the Celtics pose three-point-shooting threats at their frontcourt positions – e.g. Boston’s Al Horford and Marcus Morris – the Bucks recognize the need to adapt.
One of Milwaukee’s biggest issues Thursday was defending middle pick-and-rolls with Boston’s big man popping out beyond the arc. That either led to an immediate open look or sent the defense scrambling, creating opportunities for other Celtics.
With a general preference for having their bigs drop toward the hoop against pick-and-rolls, the Bucks were susceptible to that kind of action. The Bucks have rolled the dice defending the three-point line this season, allowing 38.1 attempts per game – the second-most in the league behind the Golden State Warriors (38.7) – but have put a premium on making sure those attempts come from outside the corners and trying to keep the opponent’s best shooters from getting clean looks.
Add in a little bit of good fortune and Bucks opponents are shooting just 31.5 percent from three-point range, which ranks as the second-lowest in the league. Indeed there are tweaks to be made and Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has used the days off to make some in preparation for games against teams with strong-shooting bigs.
However, don’t look for the Bucks to look vastly different on defense in the near future. Budenholzer’s philosophy is to look at how to improve what they do and how they do it instead of trying to match up to everything opponents might throw at them.
“I would say we’re really leaning heavily on just trying to continue to enforce our principles and really build habits,” Budenholzer said, noting that eight games into the season showing opponents adjustments or not showing them is much less a part of the equation.
“At the end of the day, you need to build habits that are getting you through the season and preparing you for the playoffs. … I would say we’re significantly leaning toward just sticking with our principles, sticking with kind of our basic stuff and trying to get really good and really solid there.”
Budenholzer recognizes that his inward focus is not unique, but he believes his teams trend more toward that philosophy than other teams around the league. He wants the Bucks to be able to pride themselves in continually improving within the defensive scheme and the principles within it.
However, he’s not so rigid to dismiss the need for and value of making adjustments or additions.
“The game’s always changing,” Budenholzer said. “The players are seeing and experiencing things and hopefully as coaches, we’re seeing things. Can we stay solid and stay fundamental and maybe tweak slightly or I guess in some cases maybe significantly? I think every team kind of goes through that. I think we have a smart team and smart guys, so hopefully, we’ll be able to continue that.”
Coming off Thursday’s loss, there’s still much more trust in the defense than the Bucks have had in the past. Over the past few seasons, the Bucks have expressed a desire to be a strong defensive team but haven’t had the results, ranking toward the bottom of the NBA and giving up a large volume of high-efficiency shots – corner three-pointers and points at the rim.
Through eight games, this year’s Bucks rank second only to the Celtics in defensive efficiency at 100.3 points allowed per 100 possessions and have vastly cut down opponent attempts from those desired shooting spots. One team making 24 three-pointers doesn’t shake the fact that, overwhelmingly, Milwaukee’s approach has worked.
We’ve got guys on this team that compete on the defensive end. I think that’s why we’ll be one of the better teams in the NBA defensively,” Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon said “There’s a complete difference in the scheme. The defense we’re playing now is simpler. They’ve simplified a lot of things, a lot of concepts just so we can focus on little things. We don’t have to focus on a lot of moving pieces.”
With the surprisingly-hot Kings – winners of five in a row and coming off a 146-115 win in Atlanta – coming to town Sunday, the Bucks will face a new threat. Sacramento is in the bottom five in three-point rate, but the Kings are playing at a blistering pace of an estimated 106.4 possessions per game, which ranks second in the NBA.
Armed with quick, athletic players at all positions led by second-year point guard De’Aaron Fox, transition defense will be at a premium.
“They’re not shooting a lot of threes but they’re still scoring at a rapid pace because they play so fast,” Brogdon said. “A team like that, you’ve got to put them in the half court. They’re going to play hard for 48 minutes, so you’ve got to match their energy.
“They’re playing hard and together. I think those are the most dangerous teams.”