After a fairytale outcome to their first-round series in which they swept the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, the Milwaukee Bucks have gone down 2-0 in their second-round series. The Brooklyn Nets have looked absolutely unstoppable since the beginning of the playoffs, and are currently shooting a 50/40/90 split as a TEAM. That is not a typo, the Nets are collectively shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on 3-pointers, and 90 percent from the free-throw line in the postseason thus far. While absurd such levels of efficiency are obviously not sustainable over the long term, it is a demonstration of the historic prowess of this offense.
The Nets were also able to win the first two games of the series despite James Harden being unavailable for all but the first few minutes of game one. The Bucks will have to contend with the increased dynamism his return will bring to the Brooklyn offense. Lucky for them, he is out for game three as well, which buys them some time. Getting at least one win in the books before he returns would be huge for their chances as well as morale.
All that being said, Milwaukee still has their work cut out for them. This series is a matchup between two very different types of big threes; the Bucks’ is made up of players who are homegrown and/or not lottery picks, while the Nets’ is comprised entirely of top three draft picks who joined forces entirely by choice. This matchup gives the Bucks the potential to be folk heroes who take down a blue-chip Nets team that is, in the eyes of some, trying to take a shortcut to win an NBA championship. So far though, Brooklyn’s philosophy of construction seems to be winning out. So, what can Milwaukee do to get back into this series? Let’s take a look at some adjustments that could be crucial.
1. Play Giannis Antetokounmpo at Center
While the Brooklyn Nets have one of the most dynamic offenses in NBA history, they struggle on the defensive end. Their interior defense in particular leaves something to be desired. The Bucks were 11th in the NBA in points scored in the paint in the regular season, while the Bucks were the 12th worst team in the league in points allowed in the paint per game. Relevant to this statistic as well is that they were starting a defensive-minded center in DeAndre Jordan for 43 games of the regular season. They have since decided to play small and start Blake Griffin at center for the increased spacing it gives them on offense and the switchability and versatility it provides them on defense.
While both of these advantages have worked in Brooklyn’s favor thus far, Blake Griffin as the anchor of the Nets’ defense is easily exploitable. Antetokounmpo on Griffin is a mismatch both in terms of size as well as athleticism at this point in Griffin’s injury-riddled career. It would allow them to more easily hunt mismatches in the pick-and-roll, where they could bring Griffin into actions and force him to fight through screens while Antetokounmpo streaks to the rim. It would also give Antetokounmpo more opportunities without the ball in his hands and as a screener instead, something that the Bucks utilized frequently this year but have abandoned in this series.
Blake Griffin today:
Vintage. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/v5fsz5rPid
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 6, 2021
Last game, the Bucks offense devolved into its pre-Holiday form, which mostly involved Antetokounmpo trying to slash into the paint as a ball-handler from the top of the key, something that has never worked for him or Milwaukee in the playoffs. By playing Antetokounmpo at the five, the Bucks can physically impose their will at the rim against Griffin as well as put the Greek Freak in a more natural position on offense. The one area of concern is that the Nets often played extreme drop coverage on pick-and-rolls against Antetokounmpo in game two. He would catch the ball off of rolls with a ton of space in front of him, but with a defender sitting and waiting for him in the paint. He will need to find his teammates for open shots in these situations and hope they come through because he is not going to beat them as a mid-range jump shooter.
2. Do Not Play PJ Tucker
This sort of goes along with starting Antetokounmpo at center, since that is the position Tucker has played for the Bucks since he joined the team. Ever since his days with the Houston Rockets, PJ Tucker has been heralded as the ultimate small-ball center: a guy that is strong enough to bang with the big guys down low but small and quick enough to switch onto guards and wings. For this reason, many people saw him as the Bucks’ best option in this series to match up against Kevin Durant’s size and quickness. Clearly, this perception was misguided, as Durant has barbecued the Bucks defense in the first two games of this series and PJ Tucker has been able to do absolutely nothing about it. He is currently shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 30.5 points per game so far this series.
Certainly, the fact that the Nets scored 125 points on Monday is not the ideal defensive outcome for the Bucks, but it is ultimately secondary to the fact that they scored 86 points on offense. It is possible to beat a team in the NBA even if you allow them to score 120 points. In fact, it is something that is becoming increasingly frequent as offenses get better every year. But seldom, if at all, will a team win or even be competitive in a game where they score 86 points. If PJ Tucker is not capable of even slowing Durant down, there is little point in even playing him, much less starting him. It is hard to rationalize playing Tucker for 22 minutes if the extent of his offensive contributions is going one for two with a missed 3-pointer as he did in game two. They would be far better served by starting Bryn Forbes or Bobby Portis for their much greater offensive capabilities and just accepting that they will probably get targeted on the defensive end. To a certain degree, it does not matter who you throw at Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they are going to get buckets regardless. They need to do something to at least try and keep up with the Nets on offense, which Portis’ and especially Forbes’ shooting could absolutely do. And maybe Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer will let his former Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo guard Durant instead of PJ freaking Tucker.
3. Take the L in Trying to Guard KD
Look, Durant is simply one of the greatest scorers to ever walk the earth (if not the best), and to a certain degree, Milwaukee has to come to terms with the fact that they just are not going to able to stop him sometimes. This tweet from NBA statistician Owen Phillips explains this reality with numbers far better than words can.
Percent of playoffs 3PAs that have been contested (defender within 6 feet)
Durant is making 50 percent of his threes, even though 90 percent of them are contested. Not really sure what the Bucks are supposed to do about that pic.twitter.com/hkF8OaYjcP
— Owen Phillips (@owenlhjphillips) June 8, 2021
KD has simply been unconscious both in the postseason overall as well as against Milwaukee, and while I understand that the Bucks feel like they need to at least TRY and slow him down, it is an ultimately futile effort with their personnel. They would be better off throwing their best defenders at Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris or whatever other Nets role player is having a good game on offense. Durant might go for 40 or 50, but he cannot beat the Bucks by himself. It worked for the Los Angeles Clippers against the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic; they just accepted the fact that Luka was individually going to torch them and dared the other players on the roster to beat them. The clock is ticking for the Bucks to employ this strategy though, as Harden could potentially return later in the series, and Durant and Harden are definitely good enough to beat them by themselves.
Obviously, this is about as bad as this series could have begun for Milwaukee, but 2-0 leads are not insurmountable. The Clippers came back to win a series in which they were down 2-0 just last round. Historically, speaking, the Bucks have about a 6.5% chance to come back and win this series, but that number is above zero, and that is all that matters. There is an old adage, “the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. The Bucks are staring down the pipe of a seemingly impossible task, but they can take that first bite out of the elephant if they can make some key adjustments and win game three. Here’s to hoping they are up for the challenge.
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference, TeamRankings and ESPN
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