The Milwaukee Bucks are on the brink of another playoff exit, without a workable formula for how to win, searching for answers they may never find.
This year was supposed to be different. This was the year the Milwaukee Bucks, having learned from their previous postseason failures and worked all season long to improve their schematic flexibility, would finally make the proper tactical adjustments and vanquish their Eastern rivals with a deep playoff run.
For four games in the first round, the Bucks appeared to have quelled skepticism about their playoff viability, but the last two games against the Brooklyn Nets have reignited those doubts as they’ve fallen prey to the same issues that plagued them in previous years. Now, as in seasons before, Milwaukee stands near the brink of another demoralizing elimination, without so much as a workable formula for how to beat its opponent, searching for answers it may never find.
How are the Milwaukee Bucks in this position … again?
In theory, the Bucks had several clear edges over Brooklyn entering this series, most of which could have been augmented by James Harden unfortunately reaggravating his sore hamstring early in Game 1. Instead, it was the Nets who pressed their advantages, the Nets who played as though they had something to prove, the Nets who sensed vulnerability from their opponent and attacked it.
Meanwhile, the team that confidently rolled through three straight dominant regular seasons and emphatically squashed Miami in round one looked rattled by an opponent to whom it should consider itself equal. This series, however, has been anything but; Brooklyn has outscored the Bucks by a combined 47 points in two games, outshot them 36-14 from the 3-point line and simply outplayed them in virtually every capacity. And while it’s true that aberrational 3-point shooting played a part in the Nets’ first two wins of the series (the Bucks shot a dismal 17 percent from deep in Game 1 and the Nets eclipsed 50 percent in Game 2), Milwaukee’s issues run so much deeper than that.
All season, the Nets built their offense on isolation scoring as the Bucks moved toward a more egalitarian, movement-based attack. Yet it’s Milwaukee who seems intent upon forcing the issue one-on-one while Brooklyn moves the ball beautifully around its two, star scorers. The Bucks have assisted on just 35 of their 82 made field goals in the series — compared to 52 assists on 95 makes for the Nets — and their stagnant offense (pun slightly intended), has hardly made the Nets’ defense — which ranked just 21st in points allowed per possession this year — work for stops. Instead, they’ve settled for quick jumpers in transition or difficult mid-range attempts off of little to no ball movement.
Even Milwaukee’s advantages at the rim and on the offensive glass shrunk in Game 2, when the Nets limited them to 11 offensive rebounds, nine free-throw attempts (two came in garbage time) and just 13 shots at the rim. The Bucks have also turned the ball over on more than 13 percent of its possessions in the series (compared to 7.4 percent for the Nets) — another product of trying to work against a set defense on nearly all of its halfcourt possessions — and repeatedly tried to isolate Giannis Antetokounmpo at the top of the key in Game 2, even after it became clear that approach wasn’t working.
Spreading the floor around Antetokounmpo and letting him attack his defender one-on-one has been an effective formula for three regular seasons, but the Nets have made a more concerted effort in this series to wall off the paint and keep Giannis from getting easy shots in the paint. Rather than continuing to initiate sets through him against a loaded defense, the Bucks might consider trying to get Antetokounmpo the ball with an advantage, either in handoffs, cuts, rolls to the rim or any other dynamic situation.
All of their offensive struggles in the first two games have added up to a 97.2 offensive rating (bad), but the Bucks’ larger issue may be their inability to contain Brooklyn on the other end of the floor. No defense can completely suppress the Nets’ offensive firepower, but Milwaukee has stood no chance of containing the most efficient regular-season offense of all time — particularly Kevin Durant.
Antetokounmpo has drawn the matchup at times, but the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has struggled to stay in front of Durant, let alone slide over ball screens when he initiates in the pick-and-roll. P.J. Tucker, arguably the team’s best on-ball frontcourt defender, has been limited to just 50 total minutes in the series, likely due to what head coach Mike Budenholzer perceives as foul trouble. That has required the Bucks to send extra help to the ball, which Durant and Kyrie Irving have easily identified and picked apart. Even Antetokounmpo, typically one of the best off-ball defenders in the NBA, has helped excessively out of sheer panic for what damage Durant might do against single coverage:
The Bucks busted out a 2-3 zone in Game 2 but had so little practice with that structure that they looked just as discombobulated as before. It might help to stagger the minutes of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez — his two best rim protectors — rather than resting them simultaneously, so that two of Giannis, Lopez and Tucker stay on the floor at all times. But even that tweak would still leave Milwaukee vulnerable in the backcourt, where Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have struggled to contain Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris, and excising Bobby Portis from the frontcourt rotation could require increasing Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes, or Jeff Teague’s minutes — all suboptimal choices.
Suboptimal choices may be all the Bucks have left. Holiday and Middleton should be better moving forward, and Antetokounmpo can still reach MVP capacity. But beyond dominant showings from all three, Milwaukee doesn’t have many more buttons to press or, apparently, a coach willing to press them. Credit also belongs to the Nets for playing with urgency, raising their defensive effort and exploiting Milwaukee’s defense with sharp ball movement. They’re a far fiercer opponent than the Bucks have seen in either of the last two playoffs and at this rate, they’ll be the last team Milwaukee sees before a long offseason.
Can the Jazz keep beating the switch?
Perhaps the biggest question the Jazz had to answer coming into the series was whether its guards could consistently beat their defenders off the dribble to create open looks for themselves or teammates. If any defense could put the brakes on Utah’s egalitarian, motion offense, it was one with rangy, like-sized players who could switch ball screens across all positions and force ball-handlers into tough shots in isolation. But in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, the Jazz seemed to have no problem creating quality looks — in isolation, pick-and-roll or elsewhere.
Absent Mike Conley, Utah was reduced to just two creators who could reliably get separation and convert shots off the dribble against a switching defense. One of those two, Jordan Clarkson, missed all four of his shots inside the 3-point line while the other, Donovan Mitchell, added another monumental performance to an already accomplished playoff resume.
More noteworthy than Mitchell’s 45 points in Utah’s win was how relentlessly he attacked the weak points of L.A.’s defense. The Jazz largely stuck to their offensive system for most of the game, running multiple actions on each possession, opening up corner shooters with Rudy Gobert’s dives to the rim and looking for quick triples in transition. But down the stretch, they became more particular about how and where they attacked. Utah repeatedly targeted Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard in pick-and-roll, getting them switched onto Mitchell so he could go to work:
The Clippers eventually tried hiding Kennard by hedging screens while Mitchell’s defender recovered underneath them, but Mitchell still managed to get downhill, find an open teammate or rise up over Kawhi Leonard from the perimeter:
That kind of undeniable shot-making is often what separates true title contenders from merely solid playoff teams. The Clippers will likely try something different against the pick-and-roll in Game 2, potentially by trapping Mitchell and making him pass under duress. But that risks one of the NBA’s best passing and shooting teams playing four-on-three in the halfcourt — the very scenario L.A.’s switching is intended to prevent. If Conley returns in this series, the Clippers may have no choice but to live with Mitchell getting what he wants.