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Milwaukee’s Defense Was Built for This Moment

Giannis and the Bucks are doing whatever it takes to disrupt Chris Paul and the Suns.

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

The 2020–21 season put NBA defenses on their heels. Most nights were dominated by some of the most efficient offenses we’ve ever seen. Most games were a scramble to tamp down the three-point shot’s continued proliferation. The Bucks partook in this dance by generating a ridiculous 116.5 points per 100 possessions and canning more threes per game than all but nine teams in NBA history.

But in the postseason, Milwaukee’s scoring chops have somewhat dissipated. They rank 11th out of 16 playoff teams in offensive rating and have generated five fewer points per 100 possessions than they did during the regular season. Instead, their primary cause for optimism—aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unerring Paul Bunyan impersonation—exists on the other end.

As a more evolved and talented iteration than any other roster under Mike Budenholzer, these Bucks have been more invested in process than results. They spent the past six months tinkering with different lineups (leaning more into specific groups that featured Giannis at center) and upping their strategic flexibility. By switching on and off the ball in spots that were less about winning any one particular possession than prepping for tests they would inevitably face in a seven-game series, the Bucks were molded to thrive in games that matter most (i.e., right now).

During the regular season, Milwaukee allowed 110.7 points per 100 possessions, which nearly dropped them out of the top 10 after two straight seasons with the NBA’s top defense. But in the playoffs their opponents have scrounged just 106.4 points per 100 possessions; no team has been more stout.

Their defensive rating in the Finals is 114.3 (aka right on par with the 17–55 Rockets), but that number is a tad misleading for a variety of reasons, including the small sample size it comes from and all the adjustments that have taken place since the series began. The Bucks are fine when Giannis is on the court and great when their starting five plays. What we saw in Game 1 is a universe removed from Game 3.

After an enervative series opener in which they stuck to the switch-everything scheme that helped guide them past the Hawks’ limping attack only to watch it blow up in their face, the Bucks dialed back that strategy. They still switched, but just about never with Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis, who dropped and trapped and did everything they could to avoid stepping out on an island with Chris Paul or Devin Booker. Since Game 1, Milwaukee has avoided flippantly placing itself in mismatches for the sake of it. Instead it’s fought through screens and shrunk the floor.

In Game 2, when they allowed 20 threes and saw Mikal Bridges explode for a playoff-high 27 points, the Bucks were a bit more bold stunting and helping off the corners than they normally would. Budenholzer explained it after the game by describing how dangerous the Suns’ backcourt can be when restricting their individual bombardments overwhelms the game plan: “Paul and Booker attract a lot of attention; and, particularly in the first half, I think they made us pay a little bit for that extra attention on them.”

Here’s P.J. Tucker doing just that:

Since Game 1, more traditional drop coverages have contributed to Phoenix’s only taking 20.5% of its shots at the rim (very impressive, even against an offense that attempted a league-low percentage of its shots at the basket during the regular season), and just 50% of them have gone in. The Suns haven’t been able to do anything at the hoop when Lopez or Giannis is nearby, in particular.

The margin of sustainability for Lopez is a different question, though, especially when he runs counter to smaller, stretchier Suns lineups that are down Dario Šarić. On/off numbers aren’t bullish on him as a positive factor in this series, but so far, his limited minutes shouldn’t inspire any panic. Lopez has done a solid job since Game 1, winning more cat-and-mouse battles against Paul/Booker and Deandre Ayton than other big men who’ve been steamrolled by those tandems in earlier rounds.

The Bucks haven’t been perfect functioning out of a base pick-and-roll coverage that’s designed to protect the paint, limit corner threes, offensive rebounds and free throws—which is understandable, considering they’re facing a pick-and-roll savant and prodigious scoring talent—but their execution within it has generally done more good than harm, especially when combined with a few matchup tweaks.

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In Game 1, Tucker guarded Paul, a decision that was designed to make 1–5 switches more palatable. (Ayton vs. Tucker in the post isn’t something Milwaukee would be too worried about.) But ever since, that assignment has belonged to Jrue Holiday, while Tucker has shifted to Booker.

Paul has spent the past several weeks levitating in pure basketball nirvana, but over the past two games, he’s started most plays staring at Holiday, bobbing 80 feet from his own basket, hunched over, chopping the possession’s flow before it actually begins. The task is unsparing—“The amount of effort that it takes and that we’re putting on his shoulders defensively is significant,” Budenholzer said a day before Game 3—but few are better equipped to handle it than Holiday.

The first-team All-Defense guard can give anyone a decent fight when switched onto them as the shot clock counts down but is even more practical dipping and ducking through picks, contesting from behind, recovering back in front of the ball, battling for dibs on the exact spots he knows Paul badly wants to get to.

Holiday is also excellent at reading and reacting on the fly. “Jrue is really good at kind of looking like he’s going to switch, and then not, and then kind of playing the game,” Tucker recently said. That level of versatility crossed with on-the-fly adaptation allows Holiday to alleviate some of the pressure his teammates feel, while letting the Bucks execute certain reads quicker than others might.

Here he is with Lopez, preswitching off Booker to guard a Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll so Lopez doesn’t have to leave the paint, and neither of them will get caught in Phoenix’s Spain pick-and-roll: 

Scoring on the Bucks in half-court situations almost always requires a bit of luck when they’re as locked in as they have been over the past two games. The communication and energy have more or less been excellent from play to play. Below, here’s what it looks like when they switch a few screens, get put into rotation and are still able to squash any open looks.

When Jae Crowder drives by Holiday, Bryn Forbes (who’s drifting out of the rotation because of the strain he typically puts on Milwaukee’s defense) drops down to cover Portis’s man, Torrey Craig. Forbes then darts out to Paul above the break while Antetokounmpo x’s out to Cam Payne in the corner. This is textbook coverage on the weakside. There are so many ways the play could have taken a turn in Phoenix’s favor—as several similar-looking sequences have—but the Bucks wouldn’t allow a crack of daylight.

On this play, while “small,” Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton switch off the ball to take away a potential mismatch for Booker. Paul is eventually forced into a fading prayer over Antetokounmpo that barely reaches the rim.

Against a Suns offense that—as Jeff Van Gundy tangentially noted during the latest broadcast—offers two undesirable options (bad and worse) for any group that has to slow them down, the Bucks have stood their ground like so few, if any, can. In many ways, Milwaukee has spent nearly three entire seasons maturing and experimenting on the defensive end so that once it got into a situation exactly like this one, it’d be ready for whatever the other team had in store.

In a league that’s increasingly dictated by offensive firepower, any defense that wants to bolster a title contender must be keen, impossibly long, chippy and cohesive. Throughout the entire playoffs, including these Finals, the Bucks have shown they’re all that and more, mutating in the most advantageous ways at the most convenient time. Big and small.

There was a point not too long ago when the word rigid could fairly describe their personality on that end, for better and worse. Now, with smart stalwarts up and down their rotation, they simply do whatever it takes to be as disruptive as possible. Above all else, it’s why they’re only three wins from the title.

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