When the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Orlando Magic on August 29 and set up the conference semi finals matchup of the Bucks against the Heat, no one was ready for what was about to happen. The Bucks, a team that was on pace to break the 70 win threshold at the beginning on March, had been dominant during the pre-hiatus regular season but slowed down a bit in the bubble, while the Heat were a scrappy team filled with shooting and provided an interesting matchup for the Bucks. Most had the series being relatively close, with a slight edge to the Bucks favor.
Then, Jimmy Butler scored 15 points in the fourth quarter of game 1 to secure the first win of the series. In their next game, Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled Jimmy Butler with the score tied at 114 and no time remaining. Lastly, what seems to now be the nail in the coffin, the Bucks were outscored 40 to 13 in the fourth quarter of game 3 to go down 3-0, a deficit which no team in NBA history has recovered from. A once promising season is looking like it will have a disappointing end for the Bucks, but there is a way to save their season and try to come back.
Note: All stats below are from Games 1 through 3 of the Bucks-Heat series
What Went Wrong for the Bucks
First, in order to fix the Bucks’ problems, we have to see where exactly they have faltered. The first step is to see whether the reason for their disappointment is their offense, defense, or a mix of both.
When looking at the change of the Bucks’ and Heat’s offensive and defensive ratings from the regular season to their second round series, it becomes obvious that the problem lies in the Bucks’ defense. The Bucks had the best regular season defense in the NBA with a defensive rating of 102.9, but their defensive rating shot up to 118.9 against the Heat (defensive rating = opponent points per 100 possessions so a higher value is worse). Additionally, the reason for the Bucks’ defensive mishaps cannot be attributed to the proficiency of the Heat’s offense since the Heat’s offensive rating was 112.5 during the regular season, not close to 118.9. However, by looking into the Bucks’ four factors we can see where exactly the Bucks’ went wrong.
The graph above shows how many points each change of the four factors costed the Bucks per 100 possessions (This was found by doing a linear regression of the four factors to offensive rating, then changing one variable at a time to isolate its contribution to the new rating). The Bucks’ shooting defense, measured by opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%), has been the cause of most of their struggles, costing them almost 10 points per 100 possessions and accounting for 58% of their change in defensive rating. While the Bucks did get worse in allowing free throws, preventing offensive rebounds, and forcing turnovers, none of the changes even are close to the impact of their shot defense.
Since defense looks to be the issue with the Bucks, shot defense in particular, the next step is to see what players have gotten worse on defending shots and why. To do this, I found the matchup stats for the Bucks-Heat series on NBA.com and found the cumulative stats of field goals attempted, free throws attempted, turnovers, and points allowed for each Buck player on defense. Using these stats, I calculated the defensive efficiency for each Buck defender by taking the points allowed and dividing by the estimated number of possessions faced (FGA + 0.44*FTA + TOV). To account for volume and the league average against the Heat, I took the player’s defensive efficiency, subtracted the league average efficiency against the Heat, multiplied by possessions faced per game (which I regulated for pace), then multiplied by -1. The resulting number shows how many points each player prevented over a league average per game.
Using this stat, we can see that most of the Bucks’ defenders have been net negative (which makes sense considering their defensive rating is 118.9). One astounding feature of the stat is how Giannis Antetokounmpo, the defensive player of the year winner, has been a bad defensive player, allowing about 0.75 points more than the average NBA player. This may not seem like a lot, but when 6 players have that number or worse, it really adds up. Additionally, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe, both commonly thought of as good defensive players, have not done well defending the Heat. To get a look at which players got worse or better defensively, I compared the points prevented for the playoff series and subtracted the points prevented from the regular season, giving the net difference of points prevented (pace is not an issue since I regulated for pace when I was calculating these stats).
Of the 10 players on the Bucks who have played significant minutes during this series, 7 have done worse defensively. The players who have struggled most include Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Brook Lopez. The main issues for Bledsoe and Lopez can be discovered by taking a deeper look into their defensive ability for each play type during the series. The main problem for Brook Lopez has been defending the roll man when the Heat set up a pick and roll. The reason for his struggles is the Bucks’ philosophy of using a drop defense on the pick and roll, which create a two on one situation if the man guarding the ball handler get caught by the screen.
For example, here George Hill gets caught by Bam Adebayo’s screen, causing Lopez to have to guard Dragic and Adebayo while in subpar defensive position. Because he has to account for both the possibility of Dragic attacking the rim or dropping the ball off to Adebayo, Lopez has to back up and Dragic was able to make a floater. The Bucks should try to avoid this drop defense if they want to improve their defense.
Bledsoe’s problems have mainly come when trying to guard spot up shooters: The Heat have scored 31 points against him on 25 spot up possessions (1.24 PPP). This is more difficult to hide since the Heat usually have 4 players that can shoot the ball well on the floor at all times (with the one who can’t being the center). Therefore, Bledsoe is difficult to hide on defense. The only way the can hide him are to either try to keep him on the ball handler at all times (which might not be a good strategy since it could mess up the defense) or to keep him on the worst shooter on the floor. Therefore, the Bucks should keep Bledsoe on Kendrick Nunn (0.979 PPP on spot up situations in the regular season) or Derrick Jones Jr. (0.839 PPP) if they are in the game. Otherwise, if Bledsoe cannot get better defensively, the Bucks might have to take drastic measures and remove him from the rotation entirely.
The the majority of the Bucks problems came defensively, they also could have tried to counteract their bad defense with better offense. Unfortunately for them, their offense also got worse during the series. The primary reason for this was their shooting; their ability in preventing turnovers, grabbing offensive rebounds, and getting to the free throw line all either got better or was worse at a negligible difference. The Bucks shooting performance alone would have decreased their offensive rating by 5.6 points, but it only decreased by 2 points, meaning the other four factors actually helped their offense.
By using a similar method of finding each player’s points prevented, I found each player’s points added offensively by using their number of shooting possessions (FGA + 0.44*FTA), points, and the league average. Then, I again found the difference between the values of their playoff stats against the Heat and their regular season stats.
By looking at each player’s points added offensively, we can see that Giannis and Eric Bledsoe have been hurting the Bucks shooting-wise. Eric Bledsoe scored 0.916 points per possession on offense against the Heat in his two games, adding to the case for benching him altogether. The primary reason for his poor shooting is going 0 for 6 on mid range shots during the Bucks-Heat series. He should stop taking mid range shots and attack the rim more to improve offensively as he made 67% of his shots in the restricted area during the regular season.
The more interesting offensive performance, though, is Giannis’s. Many in the basketball world have criticized him during this series for his decreased efficiency and scoring output. Let’s see where exactly Giannis is scoring less.
Giannis has scored 22.7 points per game in this series, down from his 29.5 season average. His scoring has mostly decreased close to the hoop, in the restricted area and the paint. While he scored 15.4 points per game in the restricted area during the regular season, he has only scored 12.0 points per game in the series. Even more curious is that his efficiency has essentially stayed the same (made 75% of shots during series compared to 74.2% in the regular season). Giannis should try to attack the hoop more aggressively and stop settling for three point shots, which he hits at a terrible efficiency (15.4% on 3 point attempts, good for 0.462 PPP).
Just to show how much better/worse each player got for this series, the table of the difference between the series points added and regular season points added is shown below. The offensive values here are a little bit different because they include assists and turnovers instead of just shooting.
How the Bucks Can Come Back
While no team in NBA history has come back from down 3-0 in a seven game series, the Bucks have to still try their best to win or at least take a few games in the series. With Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency looming in 2021, their performance could have massive ramifications of the future in Milwaukee and the NBA as a whole. Some strategies for the Bucks to try to come back are given in the next sections.
An improvement on offense would be a great help to the Bucks’ chances of coming back in this series. In order to increase their efficiency, the Bucks can do several things. The first is to stop playing off so many screens. When Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, or George Hill have shot off screens, they have scored just 63 points on 90 possessions, which is 0.70 PPP. This is obviously not working so it should be abandoned in favor of offensive schemes with more movement involved instead of just a two man game. This would open up about 30 possessions per game, in which they could easily score over 21 points on average and surpassed a terrible efficiency of 0.70 PPP.
However, the pick and roll should still be utilized at certain times. The best time to do this is when Duncan Robinson is in the game for the Heat. If the Bucks can attack Duncan Robinson on the pick and roll and score at the same efficiency as teams did against Duncan Robinson in the regular season (1.132 PPP), they can easily muster up more points. Lastly, as already alluded to above, Giannis needs to improve. The way to do this is rather simple. He needs to drive more. Giannis has scored 1.288 PPP on drives during the regular season, and that doesn’t even account for the points created via assists. Even if Bam Adebayo looms in the paint, a drive would likely force the Miami defense to shift inwards, opening up more 3 point opportunities for Khris Middleton and George Hill. When Adebayo is not in, the Bucks should allow Giannis to drive even more since there won’t be a huge defensive presence in the paint. One thing is for sure though: Giannis has to stop shooting threes and drive more often.
The problem with trying to guard Miami is that they have such good shooters on the floor at all times along with players who are able to drive and collapse the defense effectively, giving space for their already efficient shooters. Since the Bucks have obviously not done well guarding Miami in spot up situations, they have to give defensive assignments more strategically. Eric Bledsoe has been the worst guarding spot up shooters, so the Bucks should try to keep him on the worst shooter, the ball handler, or take him out of the game completely. Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Donte DiVincenzo were the worst spot up defenders during the whole year, allowing a combined 1.094 PPP in spot up situations in the regular season. Since Wesley Matthews has guarded Butler well, he should probably be on him for the game while DiVincenzo and Hill take the worst shooters on the floor (works best if Bledsoe isn’t playing). In addition to defensive assignments, the Bucks should also try to format their help defense according to the Heat’s personnel. If Kendrick Nunn or Derrick Jones Jr. is on the floor for the Heat, they should be helped off of in favor of knockdown shooters like Crowder, Dragic, Herro, and Robinson.
The other play that is hurting the Bucks the most defensively is the pick and roll. Since the Bucks play a drop defense, the pick and roll has been especially productive for the Heat. The Bucks can solve this in two ways. First, they should stop playing the drop defense is Miami sets a screen for the ball handler and the drop man should instead come up with the person setting the screen if its the center. Additionally, the Bucks can neutralize the pick and roll by going under the picks instead of over them. Neither Jimmy Butler or Tyler Herro has been very efficient when they shoot off the pick and roll, scoring 0.864 and 0.709 PPP respectively during the regular season. This strategy should not extend to all ball handlers, though. For example, Goran Dragic should not be allowed to shoot off screens as he has scored 0.94 points per possession i these situations (which is in the 74th percentile for the pick and roll ball handler).
The Bucks have a long way to go if they want to win this series. Winning even one game against Miami is tough, so four in a row is nearly impossible. However, the only way they can even have a chance at overcoming the deficit would be to implement new strategies and get rid of some of the old ones. Defensively, the Bucks can be smarter with their help and pick and roll defense, while offensively Giannis should drive more and they should rely on screens less. The Bucks can still save their season and their future, but it will be a difficult road for them.