Going into Thursday night, each NBA playoff series was two games in. One of the biggest takeaways so far has to be the dominance of the Milwaukee Bucks. Up 2-0, they’ve blown Detroit out 120-99 and 121-86. Although the Pistons are without Blake Griffin, the Bucks are living up to their league-best 60 wins. Of the sixteen playoff teams, Milwaukee ranks 1st in point differential, 2nd in field goal percentage, 1st in rebounds, and 1st in assists. They’ve slowly become the consensus favorite in the Eastern Conference, and it should be exciting to see them match up with Boston next round and maybe Toronto or Philadelphia in the Conference Finals.
I’ve fallen more and more in love with Milwaukee as the season’s gone on, and now I’m fully on board. Not only are the Bucks the best team in the East (by far), but they’re not far behind Golden State. In the regular season, the Bucks posted a +8.9 point differential. Golden State was 2nd in the league at… 6.9! If we get a Warriors/Bucks Finals, which I think we will, it’s gonna be a series. Here’s why.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
It helps to have one of the league’s best players on your team. Giannis will likely win the MVP, and deservedly so. Over the regular season he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks, and shot 58% from the field. That’s literally an unprecedented season, no NBA player has ever put up those numbers, or been close. Only Giannis and Wilt have ever averaged 27, 12, and 5, and Wilt did it on 52% shooting. Oh, by the way, Giannis is putting up those stats in only 32.9 minutes per game, 42nd in the NBA. With all the blowouts the Bucks have been handing out, he’s played far less than other superstars and still put up better numbers.
To me, the most intriguing thing about Antetokounmpo is that he’s unlike any basketball player we’ve ever seen before. He really doesn’t have a position. Remember in 2016-17, his MIP season, when we were all calling him a point guard? Now, he’s basically a center, at least offensively. Giannis leads the NBA in three-pointer assists, which makes sense considering the Bucks’ scheme. It’s like a traditional 4 out 1 in offense, but the “in” guy starts from the perimeter. You’ve probably heard the comparisons to Shaq, which seem odd considering Shaq did it from the inside, and Giannis does it from the perimeter. But it makes sense. The way he can overpower defenders all the way to the rim really is Shaq-esque.
In the last few years, it’s become common to hear “[player] can defend [number] positions”. There are a few guys that we say can defend 1-5… LeBron is one of them, and he probably could if he was trying. But Giannis can shut down all five positions. He can shut down the best players at all five positions. He may be the first player in NBA history who can guard all 450ish other players in the league. I’d feel comfortable putting him on the strongest centers and the quickest guards. He may be the DPOY, and his two-way play is incredible.
2. Role Players and Fit
Around Giannis, Milwaukee’s entire team is perfectly built to its system. It’s refreshing to watch a team that fits so perfectly, especially after watching the Celtics or Sixers. Let’s take Philly for an example. They’ve definitely got more talent than the Bucks, can we agree? If we were to rank the players of those two teams, Giannis would be 1, followed by Embiid, Butler, Simmons, and maybe Harris all before Middleton or Bledsoe, at least in my opinion. But the 76ers fit is just awful. Embiid is a post-up big man, whose running mate is a slashing point guard with zero jumper. Plus the third guy, Jimmy Butler, is a ball-dominant, isolation wing.
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Jon Horst and Mike Budenholzer have put catch-and-shoot snipers around Giannis, who can slash and kick with perfect spacing. Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton can be secondary creators but also play very well off-ball. And on the defensive end, Giannis and Brook Lopez are great rim protectors, with perfect perimeter pieces in Bledsoe, Brogdon, and Middleton. And that’s not to mention Nikola Mirotic, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova, DJ Wilson, Pau Gasol, and other bench pieces. Even with injuries to Brodgon and Gasol, they haven’t missed a beat.
3. Mike Budenholzer
One of the favorites for Coach of the Year, Bud deserves a lot of the credit for the Bucks’ huge improvement this season. In his first season in Milwaukee, Bud made schematic changes on both sides of the court that contributed to the bump from 7th seed to 1st. When the Bucks were 11-4, I wrote this article about Coach Bud and the changes I was seeing in the Bucks’ strategy. That piece aged really well, and the same changes have been effective all season. On the offensive end, he spaced things out around Giannis and increased pace. To a lot of NBA fans, this seems like borderline common sense around a player like Giannis, but Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty couldn’t figure it out last season. Take a look at a few stats that show the focus of the Bucks’ improvement.
That’s pretty incredible, and it goes to show some of the emphasis Budenholzer has placed on different areas. Shooting more threes makes sense mathematically, and especially around a player like Giannis. Pushing the pace is also an interesting one, especially considering Giannis’s dominance in transition. And the team rebounding and defense has taken a step up too, and a lot of that is thanks to Coach Bud.
A large amount of the Bucks’ focus has been on the defensive end of the floor. As you just saw, they led the NBA in defensive rating and opponent field goal percentage, both drastic improvements from the 2017-18 season. First let’s take a look at some player stats. We don’t have a lot of great defensive stats, but defensive win shares and defensive rating are two of the best we have.
In defensive win shares, the Bucks have four of the top nineteen players. Giannis is 3rd, Lopez 8th, Bledsoe 16th, and Middleton 19th. These defensive stats are very pro-center, so let’s break it down by position. Giannis is the #1 non-center, Lopez is the 5th-best center, Bledsoe is the 3rd-best guard, and Middleton is the 2nd-best wing. Similarly, in defensive rating, Giannis is 1st among all non-centers, Lopez is 5th among centers, Bledsoe is 2nd among guards, and Middleton is 4th among wings. Wow.
One of the interesting aspects of Milwaukee’s defense is they actually let their opponent shoot threes, and focus on defending the interior. The Bucks allowed more three-point attempts than any team in the league, by a significant margin, at 36.3 per game. They subsequently allowed the most made threes as well. However, their inside defense is so good, Milwaukee still led the league in opponent field goal percentage.
In fact, their interior defense was the best in the league statistically. Within 5 feet, Bucks opponents shot 55.6%, and they also allowed the least attempts from inside 5 feet. Subsequently, Milwaukee allowed the least points in the paint of any NBA team. They also allowed the least fastbreak points, and stopping transition is another huge part of protecting the rim.
That interior-focused defense has been a huge factor in Milwaukee’s success and it’s a relatively controversial idea in a league obsessed with jacking up threes.
5. Matchup with Golden State
The first four reasons spoke to Milwaukee’s dominance and scheme, but the last one compares them to the overwhelming favorites, the Golden State Warriors. Monday night, the Dubs blew a 31-point lead, the largest in playoff history, and lost to the Clippers 135-131. Also in that game, DeMarcus Cousins tore his quad, sidelining him for six weeks, and probably the rest of the playoffs.
Without Cousins, the Warriors are again faced with a big problem they’ve been struggling with all season: depth. All thirteen active Warriors entered Monday’s game, as they search for answers off the bench. And many of those reserves are non-shooters, see Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut, and Jordan Bell. The center position will be a problem all playoffs, and they’ll likely close games small with Iguodala in the lineup.
Golden State’s spacing has been noticeably worse over the course of this season. One of the reasons for this is Draymond Green’s struggles. He finished the regular season shooting 28.5% from deep, worst since his rookie year. The Clippers have been using all five of their defenders to key on Steph, KD, and Klay, and totally sagging off the other two guys, whoever they are. Playing Iguodala helps this a little bit, but he’s only a 33% shooter in his own right. They have very few shooters outside of their big three. This fits pretty well with the Bucks’ strategy to allow three-point attempts, especially to role players.
The Warriors are almost impossible to defend because they have three guys who could drop 50 any given night. Very few NBA teams can defend all three of those guys, especially Curry and Durant. So how does Milwaukee match up?
Durant may be one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and he’s on pace to break the scoring record if he plays deep into his thirties. A quick, seven-foot wing who can pull from anywhere? Who can guard him? Well, I can think of one guy with a really long last name, who also happens to lead the NBA in defensive rating. Giannis is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, especially against a KD-type, who makes his money shooting over defenders. The Greek Freak’s combination of height, length, and quickness is probably the greatest of all time. Not a bad option to defend Kevin Durant. In two games against the Bucks this year, KD averaged 14 points on 31% FG and 25% 3P. It probably won’t be Giannis on KD all the time, with Middleton mixed in too, but both have the length to bother Durant.
But what about Steph and Klay? Well, Eric Bledsoe is playing the best defense of his career, posting his first positive defensive +/- in six seasons, and the highest defensive win shares of his career. He may make an all-defense team, and he’ll likely be the primary defender on Curry. In those two matchups, Steph averaged 15 points on 37% FG and 31% 3P. Klay was the one who slipped through the cracks, averaging 22 on 55% FG and 55% 3P.
Yes, two games is a small sample size, but the Bucks have been able to shut down Steph and KD so far, and they sure have the personnel to do it in a Finals series. I’m also not sure how the Warriors could guard Giannis. One interesting trend throughout Giannis’s dominant season has been who guards him. Teams have realized that he can overpower most wings. Sometimes they’ll put centers on him, but he can blow by them, even when given space. If Milwaukee and Toronto face off in the Conference Finals, it should be interesting to see how Kawhi can do. But a Bucks/Warriors matchup would be even more intriguing. Would it be KD or Draymond on Giannis? Hopefully, we find out.
Milwaukee had an incredible regular season, and they sure haven’t slowed down in their first couple playoff games. If we do get a Bucks/Warriors Finals… it may be a longer series than you think.