PHOENIX—Stop if you’ve heard this one before: The Bucks lost a playoff game, and now their coaching staff is facing criticism for their defensive schemes.
In what’s become practically a recurring segment during Milwaukee’s last few postseason runs, a toddler-old question is once again being asked: Is Mike Budenholzer using his roster properly when it comes to defending pick-and-rolls? In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a 118–105 loss for the Bucks, coach Bud tried several strategies. He started big with Brook Lopez at center and switched everything. In the second half, he had Lopez start dropping under screens. And in the fourth, he went back to switching, except this time with Giannis at center for nearly the entire quarter.
No matter what Milwaukee tried Tuesday it didn’t work, and one player in particular was responsible for dismantling the variety of coverages—Chris Paul, who lit up the Bucks for a game-high 32 points, including 16 in the third quarter alone. With Milwaukee trying every which way to slow down Paul and the Suns’ pick-and-roll attack, Devin Booker described Paul’s success succinctly after the game: “He’s one of those guys that you take one thing away, he does the other.”
Paul was sensational in Game 1, and his superstar effort rendered the Bucks’ defensive game plan useless. CP3 shot 12-of-19, and nine of those field goals came against either switches onto a secondary defender or against Lopez in drop coverage. Lopez wasn’t the only victim, with Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton also being pulled on the dance floor for a few songs. Paul had everything going—slick dribble moves, his stepback jumper, his pull-up jumper, his fadeaway jumper, a sweet finger roll at the rim. At times it looked more like he was filming an instructional video as opposed to playing in the Finals.
Phoenix, like all Paul-led teams have been, is incredibly difficult to defend in pick-and-rolls. Switch, and Paul can invite lesser defenders over for a game of Twister or find Deandre Ayton (a now-customary 22 points and 19 rebounds) in a mismatch down low. Drop, and CP will get to one of his favorite midrange spots for a jump shot launched with the casualness of someone sipping their afternoon coffee.
“We do this so often, and we have seen just about every coverage you could possibly see, so it's second nature.” Paul said after the game about attacking off screens in Game 1.
So why did Budenholzer stick to his schemes even after his big men repeatedly got cooked like a fried egg cracked onto a Phoenix sidewalk? He may not have many better options. Both Suns coach Monty Williams, swingman Mikal Bridges and Booker mentioned after the game how much the team emphasizes spacing when Paul is conducting the offense at the top of the key. If Milwaukee were to sell out on stopping Paul—either with strong hedges or traps, that could lead to open looks from three, or allow the Suns to play four-on-three under the arc.
None of this is a new challenge for the Bucks, especially after facing Kevin Durant, James Harden and Trae Young this postseason. Budenholzer mentioned after the game his team needs to do a better job of taking away Paul’s rhythm by preventing him from getting to his spots. Lopez said he could have trusted his teammates behind him more and forced Phoenix’s guards to put the ball on the floor, suggesting he should be even more aggressive when he switches.
Realistically, the Bucks didn’t have a heretic, what-were-you-thinking plan in Game 1. It’s impossible to take away everything from a team as talented and deep as the Suns, and Milwaukee has to live with some of the semicontested makes it gave up Tuesday. Lopez, as he did in the last couple of games of the conference finals, was arguably holding his own in switches—he just repeatedly happened to find himself on an island with two of the best shooters in the game. Paul is one of the league’s all-time greats for a reason. And this is what superstars do in the Finals, they beat your Plan A, you adjust, and then they beat your Plan B.
So what can be done to disrupt Paul and the Suns? Bud still has some avenues to explore. Jrue Holiday can match up against CP3 more often than he did Tuesday. P.J. Tucker took the assignment for large stretches of the game, in part to provide some heft down low if he found himself switched onto Ayton. Option 1 for Game 2 is asking Holiday to fight over screens while remaining in drop with Lopez. Alternatively, Bud can spend more time with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five. The Bucks looked better defensively in the fourth with Giannis playing center, though Ayton will still be a risk to put pressure on the rim if Milwaukee switches everything with that look. Another possible tweak would be for the Bucks’ bigs to show and recover after screens, not unlike what the Clippers did to Luka Dončić toward the end of their first-round series against the Mavericks.
The point in all of this is there’s no magic pick-and-roll coverage for the Bucks, especially against a team with guards like Booker and Paul, and a skilled big in Ayton. Every route has its own vulnerabilities. Paul was simply Hall-of-Fame level great in his first taste of the Finals.
And yet even with all of CP’s heroics, the Bucks drew within seven points in the fourth quarter, giving themselves a faint chance to steal home court. Heck, Milwaukee actually outscored Phoenix when Giannis was on the floor, though he could play only 35 minutes in his first game back since hyperextending his left knee on a gruesome play in the last round. (Informally, it felt like most people were surprised Antetokounmpo even played after how awkwardly his knee bent in that Game 4 against the Hawks.)
You could also make the case that the Bucks had bigger issues offensively than defensively in Game 1. Holiday shot only 4-of-14 from the field and missed all of his threes. Nobody on the team could make a layup. Milwaukee also struggled to get to the free throw line, shooting 16 times from the stripe compared to 26 attempts for the Suns. Non-Giannis Bucks shot only four free throws combined. (Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo shot a good-enough 7-of-12 on freebies.)
It’s too easy to overreact to Game 1 of any series. The Bucks lost the opener to Atlanta, and were also down 0–2 to the Nets. While injuries certainly played a role in those matchups, Milwaukee has shown an ability to bounce back this postseason. As frustrating as Budenholzer’s stubbornness can be at times—how long was he going to let the Suns dictate their terms on offense Tuesday?—the Bucks have had the best defensive rating of any team in the playoffs.
Sometimes, there’s just no easy answer for a great player.
“Chris Paul, he's been a bucket, man,” Booker said. ”He's the greatest leader to play this game. But he's been a bucket for a very long time. And my six years of playing against him, or five years of playing against him, you understand that. There's no scouting report that says Chris Paul can't get a bucket.”
More NBA Playoffs Coverage: