Bucks’ new defensive identity is working but, as Bulls prove, mistakes still happen


MILWAUKEE — With the Bucks and Bulls tied and one minute remaining in Wednesday’s game, Giannis Antetokounmpo settled into his spot as a help defender in the right corner of the floor. With the Bulls using a smallball lineup, Antetokounmpo was covering Coby White, while Jrue Holiday took on the matchup of Bulls star DeMar DeRozan and Jevon Carter was covering Zach LaVine.

As time ticked away, Nikola Vučević set a cross screen to get DeRozan open at the right elbow. Holiday followed closely behind and tried to steal LaVine’s entry pass to DeRozan, but was too late to pick off the pass and instead settle behind DeRozan as the Bulls star went to work to free himself for the game’s biggest shot. DeRozan backed Holiday down toward the middle of the floor and then spun back toward the baseline for the game-winner.

When DeRozan rose up for the shot, Antetokounmpo sprang into action.

With his back to Antetokounmpo, DeRozan had no idea Antetokounmpo was going to fly toward him and try to block his shot, but it didn’t matter. With a final in-air adjustment, DeRozan tossed the basketball to White, who Antetokounmpo had left open in the corner. White nailed the 3.

“Do what I’ve been practicing on, do what I’ve been doing for years now,” Antetokounmpo explained. “I’m not changing the defense, I’m going for the block. You know DeRozan wants to shoot the ball, wants to score the ball. He made a great pass. Usually he doesn’t pass the ball there, especially down the stretch on a tough bucket like that, but today was one of those nights that he did. He made the right read, trusted his teammate and passed the ball to the corner and we paid for that. But at the end of the day, our defense don’t change.

“We rely on one another, we rely to contest. Second off the floor. Like the guy tries to keep DeRozan in front of him and whoever is the closest man tries to jump and contest because the guy that guards him is not going to jump because he’s got to stay down on the pump fake. He’s not leaving the floor. So we have to be there for our team. And so that’s what we did today. At the end of the day, some days you’re gonna lose games doing the right thing. That’s one of those games today, but we are able to go back home and be OK with ourselves because we did the right thing. It wasn’t a lack of effort. It was basically we helped one another and gave it more effort than usual.”

Holiday added: “I think Giannis was trying to — I mean, really DeMar played very, very well. He was cooking — and then we had a good two-person contest. DeMar made a great play to the corner and Coby knocked it in.”

While Antetokounmpo’s explanation makes sense from a logical perspective, it did not seem to square up tactically. While in previous seasons, the play would not have been out of the ordinary. It was unusual to watch Antetokounmpo help out of the near-side corner and leave a shooter wide-open because the Bucks have emphasized taking away the 3-point line from opponents since the start of training camp, a clear deviation from previous seasons under Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

And it has worked.

Through 17 games, the Bucks have cleaned up their shot profile defensively. The Bucks still keep teams away from the rim this season, allowing just 28.6 percent of their opponent’s shots to occur at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass, but they also keep teams off the 3-point line. While the Bucks allowed among the most 3-point attempts per game in Budenholzer’s first four seasons, the Bucks have limited opponent’s 3-point shots this season and opponents are shooting just 32.6 percent of their shots from behind the 3-point line, the fifth-lowest total league-wide.

“Giannis is competing. Jrue is competing. DeRozan’s got 36 and DeRozan’s a killer,” Budenholzer said of the defensive play on White’s 3-point shot. “I think the competitive nature, the competitive fire, it might have burned us a little bit there. But when players are competing and guys are making plays with effort, it’s hard to be too hard or too critical of them. But I think that play is something where we’ve got to continue to work and where we got to continue to get better and we’ll look at it.”

Throughout Budenholzer’s first season in Milwaukee, Bucks players regularly talked about how they were going to execute the defensive strategy, no matter what. Even on nights when other teams started to get hot from the mid-range, the defensive strategy was clear. Early in Budenholzer’s first season, Antetokounmpo even explained the math that served as the theoretical underpinning for the entire defensive scheme.

But the Bucks did not adhere to their 3-point emphasis on the defensive end on Wednesday. And it wasn’t just extra help on DeRozan that allowed White to get open for the corner 3 late in the game. The Bucks struggled to limit the Bulls from 3 the entire night and gave up 42 3-point attempts to a Bulls team averaging 28.5 3-point attempts per game, the fewest of any team in the NBA.

Look at how Wesley Matthews closes out Javonte Green on this 3-point attempt in the first quarter.

And the space that Bobby Portis gives Patrick Williams on this 3 in the second quarter.

In previous years, these shots would not have stuck out. But this year, because of the Bucks’ changed philosophies, they were completely out of place.

Just think about the two shots above, and then see Bulls coach Billy Donovan explain why the Bucks have been so good at limiting 3-point attempts this season.

“With Lopez in coverage and he’s back there, they’re really saying, ‘Hey, there’s going to be two people guarding pick-and-roll. That’s it.’ And everybody else is going to pretty much stay at home and be on the lane line,” Donovan explained before Wednesday’s game. “They were a team that I think were elite, but a lot of it was based on scouting and preparation — and this is just my opinion watching, I’m not going to talk for Bud about what he’s doing defensively — but there were certain guys they were going to take away and certain guys that they were going to live with shooting the basketball.

“Some of those shots led to 3s. To me, whatever way they do it — because of their size, their length, their basketball intellect, their schemes — they’re just good defensively. But if you’re just asking me about the 3-point line and what they’re doing, they’re putting a huge emphasis on the guy on the ball and Lopez or Portis or whoever is in there at the five, Giannis and they’re going to let those guys cover the rim and it lets those other guys have a limited amount of closeout opportunities to the 3-point line. ”

Throughout the season, the Bucks have not defended the 3-point line as they did against the Bulls on Wednesday. The Bucks have remained disciplined as help defenders and stuck close to their assignments off-the-ball rather than helping as soon as an offensive player gets an advantage on their primary defender.

Watch Antetokounmpo on this fourth quarter 3 from Vučević.

Grayson Allen should likely have not pressured Ayo Dosunmu in the backcourt because of the advantage and space it gave to the young Bulls guard, but it is tough to see exactly what he was going to do on his drive to the basket. If Antetokounmpo takes a single step at Dosunmu to slow him down and help Allen catch up before immediately retreating to his man, Vučević doesn’t get an open 3. Instead, he lingered and Vučević got a good look at a corner 3 in front of his team’s bench.

“They have good players and they shot the ball well obviously,” Bucks center Brook Lopez told The Athletic of the Bucks’ surrendering 42 3-point attempts. “It’s tough because DeMar is a heck of a player and he made a lot of tough shots tonight, so it’s tough finding that balance. It was definitely a good learning experience for us. We got some good film to look at.”

The Bucks have worked hard to create a new identity defensively all season long, but slipped up in that regard on Wednesday against the Bulls. It hasn’t happened often, so it shouldn’t be a huge concern, but the game serves as a good reminder of why they made those changes in the first place and the dangers of allowing too many 3-point shots.

(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMar DeRozan: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)


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