A month ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were a team looking to rediscover a core element of their identity. The active, versatile, tough defense that had catapulted them to a 7-0 start had slowly slipped away, replaced by open looks, missed rotations and just a general frustration with results on that end of the court.
The low point of a month’s worth of subpar play – from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1 the Bucks had a defensive rating of 110.5, which would rank below league average – came in a stretch of five games after Thanksgiving. That’s when the Bucks struggled to slow down the Phoenix Suns, got into a shootout with the San Antonio Spurs, fell into a deep hole against the Charlotte Hornets, went down to the wire with the Chicago Bulls then got torched by the New York Knicks for 136 points in an overtime loss.
That was the final straw.
Following their 7-0 start, the Bucks had gone 8-7 and looked discombobulated on defense, the area coach Mike Budenholzer has consistently pointed to as the focal point of his coaching philosophy. During a fortuitous three-day stretch between that overtime loss in New York and a home game against the Detroit Pistons, defense was the main focus at the Bucks practice facility.
They needed to work harder, execute better and take more individual pride on that end. Most importantly, the Bucks needed to embrace a defensive identity night in and night out.
“We really took a step back there for a while,” Budenholzer said. “I think if we bring that every night, then that’s going to give us our best chance to be consistent and be good.”
In the first game after those practices, the Bucks put together one of the best defensive performances of the season, holding the Pistons to 92 points and an 86.4 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in a 115-92 win on Dec. 5.
Over the past month, the Bucks have generally been fantastic on the defensive end, putting up a 101.4 defensive rating over their past 14 games – better than the best season-long net rating (Oklahoma City at 102.8) this season.
After their dip, the Bucks (26-10) are back to being the third-most efficient defense in the league heading into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. game against the Atlanta Hawks (11-25) at Fiserv Forum.
“I’m so proud of the way our team’s been handling business defensively over the last month or so,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “It’s something we talked about probably 10, 12 games back and we’ve really responded well.”
During what has been an 11-3 stretch, including wins in eight of their past nine games and four in a row, the Bucks have rediscovered their consistency on defense. There have been a few hiccups – their loss in Indiana along with shootouts against the New Orleans Pelicans and Brooklyn Nets – but for the most part, Milwaukee is setting the tone on that end.
Inside, opposing teams are finding points especially hard to come by, particularly when the Bucks keep their fouls down. Entering play Wednesday, the Bucks had allowed the fewest free throw attempts per field goal attempt (.165) in the NBA.
Outside, the Bucks are surrendering the most three-pointers in the league per game in terms of both makes (12.8) and attempts (35.5). There’s certainly still room to improve in terms of running opponents off the line. However, that situation may not be as dire if the Bucks can maintain their place as the best team in the league against two-point shots, allowing opponents to shoot just 47.5 percent inside the arc.
“I think the physicality, the effort on the ball, the effort off the ball in guarding screening situations has just been (improved),” Budenholzer said. “To be in that top group of teams you’ve got to do it at a high, high level on a regular basis, consistently for 48 minutes. … Now the challenge is not to take a step backward or have a lull on either end, hopefully.”
During this stretch, Milwaukee’s defense has also gotten a shot in the arm from second-year forward D.J. Wilson, whose length, improved strength and physicality, athleticism and versatility have added a new dimension to the team. He’s taken on the challenge of guarding all-stars such as Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis and has energetically bounced around on defense, helping to close out on shooters and erase what looked like good opportunities for opposing players.
“His versatility defensively, when you watch film, it’s showing,” Budenholzer said. “It’s standing out what he’s giving us on that end.”
With a weekend back-to-back against the Hawks and Toronto Raptors looming – not to mention the 13 road contests in 18 games heading into the all-star break that will begin after this six-game home stand – the Bucks’ ability to consistently bring it on the defensive end is going to be put to the test.
“We want to be consistent and hopefully, we’re that team,” Budenholzer said.