- For the Bucks to have any shot of making the NBA Finals, Mike Budenholzer is going to need to maximize the shooting around Giannis Antetokounmpo—that is where Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez come in.
Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t do everything. In particular, he can’t lead the Bucks in three-point shooting. At the root of Antetokounmpo’s MVP-caliber season is a revamped Milwaukee offense that focuses on spacing the floor with knockdown three-point shooters surrounding the perimeter for Antetokounmpo to attack the paint at will.
The leaders of that charge were Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, who finished 17th and 19th in the league in threes made, respectively.
Lopez, the 7-foot stretch center who was signed for just $3.3 million last summer, had his most prolific season from three. He posted career highs with 2.3 makes a game at 36.5%. Some of his best work came from the corner where he took about 15% of his attempts and made 41.3% of those looks. Almost all of Lopez’s attempts came on assists, but with Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Eric Bledsoe playing with the ball in their hands so much, it’s what’s needed to make the offense function. Plus, Lopez’s three-point success is still relatively new as this is just his third season regularly shooting from outside. He’s been a great catch-and-shoot option, but he isn’t going to do too much damage if he has to create his own look from deep. That’s where Middleton came in.
Lopez represented the new commitment to quality catch-and-shoot targets for Antetokounmpo to aim at when defenses collapsed on his drives. Middleton was the second offensive option who took the leap that made you think championship aspirations were justifiable and not just a pipe dream.
Last season, Middleton saw a slight dip in his three-point rate with increased attempts, but that was not the case this season as he took a career-high 6.2 attempts and rose his percentage about two points to 37.8%. But the glory of Middleton’s improved shooting from a year ago was how many more of his looks were by his own doing. He went from having about 84% of his threes coming off an assist to just 60.3% in his first season as an All-Star.
The one downside of this newfound aggression in three-point shot creation is that Middleton has been less effective from the corner, which is generally regarded as the best place to get looks from three since it’s a shorter distance. Yet Middleton took fewer looks from that area of the court (a career-low 12.9%) and connected on just 32.8% of those shots despite having a career mark above 43% from that location.
But with so many other players filling in the role of being catch-and-shoot options with coach Mike Budenholzer’s revamped offense, there were plenty of people besides Middleton to put in the corner. Along with Lopez the Bucks also had Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown and recently acquired Nikola Mirotic to launch threes when their defenders left to prevent the Greek Freak from destroying the rim.
Bledsoe and George Hill were the only regulars in the rotation besides Antetokounmpo who shot below 35% from distance this season. And Bledsoe’s 32.9% success rate beyond the arc was still respectable while Hill’s career-low 28% mark on threes was just as likely an anomaly that will be corrected through the postseason as it was a sign of a major decline.
Hill has seen his three-point shooting improve to 41.4% over nine games (so it was likely the former), but Bledsoe has regressed, connecting on less than 28% of his tries.
Middleton and Lopez are mirroring these two guards a bit.
Milwaukee’s other All-Star is tied for 10th in the postseason in three-point makes. But that’s mostly because everybody ahead of him has played at least two more playoff games. Middleton is shooting 46.7% from deep, which is the best rate for any player in the top-25 in made triples these playoffs. This is even more remarkable when you consider Middleton is taking a fourth of his attempts from the corner and making just 33.3% of them. But because he’s been so phenomenal at creating his own shots from three, he’s still been incredible overall (and 23-for-45 on threes above the break) despite having one of the worst years of his career from a spot he used to excel from.
But then there’s Lopez.
Splash Mountain has gone dry between mid-April and now and Lopez is equaling Bledsoe’s three-point production down to the shot (both are 12-for-43). But unlike the explosive point guard, Lopez isn’t creating his own opportunities by driving to the rim to get more looks inside and at the free-throw line. Lopez is left to to be a safety valve for when Antetokounmpo can’t finish over his defender or when Middleton or Bledsoe beats their man and forces the help to rotate.
Yet for some reason, Lopez isn’t getting put into a position to succeed. Those same corners that helped him leap toward the front of the pack in three-point makes are now going untapped as the big man struggles with his marksmanship. He’s gone just 0-for-5 from the corner over nine games. As Milwaukee has picked up pretty easy wins while accumulating an 8-1 record this postseason Lopez’s playoff slump hasn’t looked like it could be fatal. But the Bucks can’t expect to reach the finals if their leader in three-point makes from the regular season is a worse catch-and-shoot option than Russell Westbrook has been during the playoffs (Lopez is 11-for-40 on catch-and-shoot threes and Westbrook went 9-for-23 in five games).
With a seven-game series against the Raptors up next, the Bucks will need to get Lopez on track, likely by getting him in the corner more. And they will need to maximize Middleton to his fullest, which likely means leaving him in the corner less.
The two combined to average just 25 points in four regular season games against Toronto in which the Bucks went 3-1. Giannis averaged 27 points, 15.3 boards and 5 assists in those games while shooting 58.5% overall and 5-for-12 (41.7%) from three.
As unstoppable as Antetokounmpo has been these playoffs, Middleton and Lopez need protect him from the outside as they’ve done all year.
Middleton has been a reliable No. 2 despite being asked to do more from the one spot he’s been cold from all year. Lopez has not been as productive as he was in the regular season, but he isn’t taking shots from one of the places he was most effective all year.
It’s time for Budenholzer to make a slight tweak and get Lopez in the corner in place of Middleton in hopes of getting even more out of each player.
This switch could damper Antetokounmpo’s driving lanes depending on how and which defenders are dealing with Middleton and Lopez. Danny Green helping off Middleton is not as much a threat at the rim as Marc Gasol. But maybe Budenholzer should be more worried about somebody rotating to take a charge instead of somebody trying to stop Giannis by being the bigger body at the basket.
Either way, Antetokounmpo is going to need help and somebody to pass to for an open three when the time comes. And now Budenholzer needs to maximize the shooting around his MVP as he’s done all year by assuring Middleton and Lopez are at the top of their game and in the right places to succeed.