To understand what has made this defense so brilliant during this series one must first recognize how far the defense has come since the Bucks mid season slump. During the months of January and February Milwaukee sported a defensive rating of 110.5, the 4th worst in the NBA during that time span. Employing a hyper aggressive defense filled with many double teams that relied on defenders flying around the court to recover to their assignments, the defense was frequently late in their recovery leading to open three pointers much like this possession here against the Jazz back in February.
During the months of January and February the Bucks defense gave up 11.2 three pointers a game (4th worst during that span) with opponents shooting 38.7% (2nd worst) from behind the arc. Along came March and the Bucks defense transformed itself with the help a full strength Khris Middleton quarterbacking the defense and a newfound energy as the potential of reaching the playoffs became a reality. Now leading 2-1 in their first round matchup against the Toronto Raptors the Bucks sport the 2nd best Defensive rating in the playoffs (95.4) trailing only the Golden State Warriors. To fully comprehend what has made the Bucks defense so stingy throughout this series I am going to analyze what adjustments the defense has made to both protected the paint while also limiting Toronto’s success from beyond the arc.
Toronto was no slouch on the offensive end of the floor this year boasting the 6th best offensive rating in the NBA carried by their dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry (22.4 PPG) and Demar Derozan (27.3 PPG). Toronto ran a guard-centric offense that utilized the pick and roll more than any other offense in the league during the regular season. In the first three games Jason Kidd has thrown more than one strategy at the Raptors when defending their many pick and rolls. I will analyze three different situations from games 1 and 3 to demonstrate just how the Bucks are using team defense to slow down the Raptors guard heavy attack.
The first clip took place in the 3rd quarter of the Bucks dominant Game 1 win. On the first possession Thon Maker is late to help on a pick and roll with Demar Derozan. But thanks to Thon’s amazingly impressive foot speed paired with his exceptional length (7’1 ft.) the rookie center makes up ground and swats Derozan’s shot leading to a transition and-1 for the Greek Freak. On the next defensive possession Thon shows a glimpse of what might be in the future. With 7:20 remaining in the 3rd quarter and the Bucks clinging on to a 3 point lead, Kyle Lowry runs off a screen set by Ibaka at the top of the key, which leads to Thon switching onto Lowry to allow time for Malcom Brogdon to recover from the screen. Seeing a 7’1 rookie center on him Lowry promptly puts his head down and drives left to jet around Maker only to find the young center attached to him like a seatbelt all the way to the basket. After being swarmed by Maker, Lowry makes the pass out to Ibaka (Thon’s assignment) who is then quickly picked up by a recovering Giannis. The possession ends on a closely guarded turn around jumper from the free throw line that Lowry manages to hit. Thon Maker’s ability to switch the pick and roll with quicker guards like Lowry is a textbook example of how Milwaukee’s aggressive plays on the pick and roll has slowed down the guard play of Toronto throughout the series.
The next clip was taken with 6:55 seconds left in the first quarter with the Bucks leading 15-8 in game 3. Tony Snell finds himself in the corner guarding Demar Derozan off of an inbound pass. As Milwaukee has done all series Tony Snell forces the Raptors to drive baseline by heavily guarding Demar’s right hand. He takes the bait and drives baseline where he is promptly met by a trapping Thon Maker in the short corner (an area the Bucks have double teamed all season including in this series). Demar quickly makes the pass back to Thon’s wide-open assignment Serge Ibaka. Once that pass is made the Bucks weak side defense is forced to scramble to the open man and play 4 on 3 defense until the trapper (Thon) has time to recover. This is the most important stage in the Bucks defense that can make or break the team. As shown in the February game against the Jazz, the defense is prone to giving up wide-open three point attempts if the defense is late to recover. Milwaukee’s success on the defensive end of the floor is contingent on them being able to recover on defense when they bring the double team. Once the pass is made to Ibaka, Middleton leaves his assignment to close out Ibaka who then swings it to Demarre Carroll who misses the shot as Thon is recovering from the baseline trap.
The last play starts with a simple weave action from the Raptors to get Kyle Lowry the ball. Next Jonas Valanciunas sets a great screen to shake Matthew Dellavedova off Lowry. Then, as the defense has done for much of the series, Greg Monroe switches his assignment and walls off any lanes for Lowry to drive to the hoop until Delly has time to recover. Both Thon and Monroe have been instrumental in keeping the guards for Toronto outside the paint off of pick and rolls and forcing contested shots in close (the Raptors are shooting 46.8% in the restricted area; 2nd worst of all playoff teams). On the backside Michael Beasley leaves his man in the corner and covers Jonas Valanciunas to stop the pass to post while Monroe recovers. Once Monroe recovers the Raptors post up Valanciunas one foot inside the 3-point arc who then shoots a contested long mid range with the shot clock winding down and Monroe in his face.
All in all if Milwaukee wants to continue their run in the playoffs they will need to see another big performance from the team defense. If the two centers Thon Maker and Greg Monroe can continue their dominance in guarding the pick and roll, the Bucks can thwart the Raptors dominant offensive attack. For Milwaukee the rest of the series starts and ends with the defense and for that reason the Bucks defense is my X-factor in this series.