NEW YORK — The Milwaukee Bucks searched all game long for the right combination of personnel and tactics that would allow them to consistently get defensive stops.
Then, in the game’s biggest moments, the tactics didn’t much matter as Giannis Antetokounmpo made blocks on back-to-back possessions to allow the Bucks to escape Brooklyn with a 129-125 victory Monday and move to 4-2 on the season.
“Man, I mean, he’s phenomenal. He’s a winner. Those are winning plays,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes for us to win as a team.”
Antetokounmpo tallied 36 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in the win over the Nets, but his two blocks in the final 30 seconds were the biggest plays of the game. Both came in unlikely circumstances, at least for this season of Bucks basketball.
The Bucks have been one of the NBA’s worst transition defenses this season, but they are particularly woeful getting back off live rebounds. Per Cleaning the Glass, more than 43.1 percent of opponents’ live-ball rebounds have led to a transition play against the Bucks, the league’s highest frequency, and the Bucks have surrendered more than 1.45 points per possession on those plays, the league’s highest figure.
So, with 35 seconds left and a two-point lead, the Bucks found themselves in the worst position imaginable.
While he had nearly perfectly orchestrated the Bucks’ crunchtime offense for the game’s final four minutes, forward Khris Middleton missed a 3-pointer from the middle of the floor. Jae Crowder and Bobby Portis crashed the offensive glass from the corners, and while they failed to secure a rebound, Crowder tipped the ball away from the rim and toward the Nets’ basket. There, it landed in the hands of Nets pseudo-center Ben Simmons, who looked up the floor and found Dorian Finney-Smith behind the Bucks’ defense and streaking toward the rim.
This situation has led to an easy basket for opponents all season long, but this time, with an assist from Middleton, Antetokounmpo made a play.
After Damian Lillard made just one of two at the free-throw line, the Bucks needed another stop and went to a new defensive look.
Throughout the night, Griffin tried a number of defensive alignments. Tactically, the Bucks started the game with Brook Lopez matched up against Simmons, sagging off the non-shooter and clogging the lane with help defense and drop coverage in pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. But the Nets’ speed and small lineups, as well as Mikal Bridges’ midrange proficiency, proved to be too much for the Bucks to handle with Lopez on the floor, and the big man couldn’t find a way to impact the game defensively as he did on Friday against the New York Knicks.
Griffin switched to a zone defense for long stretches Monday to counteract the Nets’ speed and look for a way to keep some of the Bucks’ bigger players on the floor defensively. Eventually, the Nets became comfortable against that alignment as well.
In the final three minutes though, Griffin opted to bring Portis into the game for Lopez and let all five players on the floor switch pick-and-roll actions. That didn’t end up being all that successful as Cam Thomas, the Nets’ second-year wing who went off for 45 points on 33 shots on Monday, and Bridges (31 points) took turns probing the Bucks’ defense until they got a chance to attack Portis off the dribble.
Struggling to find a real solution for what the Nets were doing offensively, Griffin opted for a brand new look to close out the game. With a three-point lead and 23.4 seconds remaining, Griffin took his traditional centers off the floor and played a lineup with Antetokounmpo serving as the nominal center.
After Simmons inbounded the ball, the Bucks switched Thomas from Crowder to Lillard to Middleton, then Middleton ran Thomas off the line and forced him to the basket, where Antetokounmpo waited and swatted Thomas’ shot off the glass before eventually collecting the rebound and sealing the game.
“I wasn’t thinking I was the big out there; I was trying to play basketball,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was fortunate to be in the right spot down the stretch and be able to get those blocks.”
Antetokounmpo was able to do just enough defensively to lift the Bucks. Overall, though, the Bucks have not been good defensively. For the third time in just six games, the Bucks gave up 125 or more points. As of Tuesday morning, the Bucks have given up 116.7 points per 100 possessions, the league’s 24th-best defensive rating.
From the outside, it might appear as though the Bucks are struggling to figure out who they are defensively, but Antetokounmpo insists they already know.
“We know our identity; we’re just trying to figure out what works, and we’ve got to be good at everything,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think we are very good in drop when Brook’s on the floor. We are really good when we play small, we can switch. We can make guys just play one-on-one and take tough shots. Sometimes we’ve got to play zone whenever we want to make them shoot a lot of tough 3s and rebound the ball, go the other way, especially when we’re trailing the game and we’re down 10 and try to get back into the game.
“There’s a lot of things that we can do that we (weren’t) doing last year. So there’s going to be times that it’s going to work, and there’s going to be times when it’s not going to work, but it doesn’t hurt to try. And right now, we’re trying things, and eventually, we are going to figure out what we are really good at and we are going to do it and we’re going to know the situation that we have to do things too.”
Antetokounmpo’s open-mindedness to defensive experimentation could be very helpful if the Bucks are truly looking for new and interesting ways to put together stops. But up to this point, the Bucks haven’t been all that successful. It hasn’t hurt them too badly in the win column, but the Bucks might not have pulled out Monday’s win without Antetokounmpo’s excellence.
If they want to stack up wins in the regular season, they will need to find a more sustainable defensive effort than what they’ve been able to produce in the first six games.
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)