OAKLAND, Calif. – The Milwaukee Bucks are a vastly better defensive team than they’ve been in past years. In fact, 10 games into the season, they will head into Thursday’s 9:30 p.m. clash with the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena as the second-best team in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency.
However, the Bucks still have holes defensively. The Portland Trail Blazers certainly exposed some on Tuesday night in handing the Bucks a 118-103 defeat at Moda Center.
“If we do what we did tonight, (the Warriors) are going to score 150 on us,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said following Tuesday’s loss. “We’ve got to tighten it up, put some effort in it, make some shots offensively and hope we can have a chance to win at Golden State.”
Facing a dangerous backcourt in Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Bucks again ran into an issue that has hurt them this season as Lillard got going early from behind the three-point arc and McCollum dominated the second half on the way to 40 points. Milwaukee’s usual coverage on pick-and-rolls doesn’t fare so well against quick, dynamic guards who are proficient at virtually any play or pass the defense makes available.
If the Bucks dared to go under a screen, Lillard or McCollum wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a three-pointer. Even if they went over the screen, both players have quick releases and can get off a shot before the trailing defender catches up. With Bucks bigs dropping on pick-and-rolls to defend the paint, either Blazers guard was comfortable shooting from the midrange, especially McCollum who went 8 of 10 on two-point shots outside the paint.
Milwaukee had issues with its coverage in close road contests against Charlotte and Boston, with Hornets guard Kemba Walker scorching the Bucks for 41 points on opening night in a game Milwaukee narrowly won. Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, with an assist from center Al Horford, set the tone for the Celtics’ 117-113 win last week.
“They just take advantage of our coverage,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said. “In our coverage with guys that can shoot threes, pull-ups, midrange and all the way to the rim it’s a (expletive) to guard them in that type of coverage. We just got to do a better job of trying to get into them, trying to make it a little tougher.”
While there are plenty of talented guards in the NBA, most aren’t at the level of players like Walker, Irving, Lillard or McCollum. Thus, Milwaukee’s defense has held up well in most games this season, helping the Bucks to their 8-2 start.
Heading into Wednesday’s slate of NBA games, the Bucks ranked as the best team in terms of opponent field-goal percentage with teams shooting 41.6% against Milwaukee. They may be allowing the most three-point attempts in the league at 38.4 per game, but the Bucks aren’t leaving opponents open in the corner. Less than 10% of opponent three-point attempts are coming from the corner, which ranks fifth in the league.
Inside the arc, Bucks opponents are attempting 19.7% of their shots within three feet of the rim (fewest in the NBA) and are making those tries just 61.1% of the time (third lowest in the NBA). Over a third of all defensive shooting possessions end with Milwaukee’s opponent putting up an attempt from between three feet and the three-point arc.
That type of shot spread points to the Bucks’ scheme doing what it is intended to do with players working together to achieve that goal.
“We’ve got to have a lot of individual pride, we’ve got to be good on the ball, but then we’ve got to have great teamwork, team effort, activity behind whoever it is that’s guarding the ball or guarding the pick-and-roll,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You really have to have everything if you want to be good defensively.”
However, against teams that do boast elite backcourt players – like the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, not to mention Kevin Durant – the Bucks could be in trouble. Against the Celtics and Blazers, the Bucks stuck to their scheme until the fourth quarter, with the adjustment usually involving center Brook Lopez showing on screens and picking up the ball-handler along the perimeter.
Both games, the change helped narrow a double-digit lead but players thought the adjustment came too late. With the defending-champion Warriors and their league-best offense next on the schedule, the Bucks recognize the need to be fundamentally sound in their defensive execution while also being ready to adjust as necessary.
“They ain’t going to have no pity on us, they’re going to try to do the same thing,” Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe said. “We’ve definitely got to lock in.”