Defense Days

Four straight Bucks opponents (and counting) have been held to fewer than 100 points. 

That never happened last season.

Indeed. For all of the dunks and last-second heroics and offensive improvements from Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo and so on… the massive improvement in competitiveness is largely the result of the defense, not the offense. At least so far.

The Bucks have transformed from the league’s very worst defensive unit last season into the top five overall this season. Maybe that all changes seven games from now. But through the first seven games, this team has the look of a potentially elite defensive group.

How so?

Here are five quick reasons among many.

Blocks + Steals

If you add together blocks per game and steals per game, the Bucks rank third in the NBA. These plays often push the ball in the other direction, setting up efficient scoring opportunities for a team that is rewarding change-of-direction runners and playing with bust outs in mind. They rank seventh in blocks per game (6.0) led by Larry Sanders, and they rank third overall in steals per game (9.9) led also by a person called Larry Sanders. He is head of all havoc on that side of the ball, but the team is opportunistically doubling and helping with verve and intelligence around him as well, often causing rushed or delayed offensive decisions by the opponent.

Larry Sanders is very good at defense

He will need to play more than half of each game to earn serious Defensive Player of the Year mention. But in those halves of each game so far? Sanders has been borderline dominant. He is averaging 23.6 minutes per game, and when he is on the court, the Bucks are holding opponents to lower offensive numbers across the board, including points of course. And Sanders is a lot more than glamour stats, more than blocks and steals. Opponents are shooting 48.5 percent on shots from within six feet when Sanders is defending. That is more than 10.0 percent lower than average. The Bucks were much better defensively when he was on the court than they were when he was not last year as well, but that just wasn’t very often. Hopefully he can keep the fouls down and stay on the court for more minutes moving forward.

Transition defense

The Bucks are turning over the ball a bit too often on offense, and that makes it tough on the defense. They rank eighth in offensive turnovers, so hopefully that will change. But to their credit, they are getting back on defense. They are ninth best in the league in minimizing points off turnovers.

Defense on threes

Can they keep this one up? Last season the Bucks allowed opponents to shoot a league-best 38.2 percent on threes. That was not so good. Opponents this season are shooting 29.9 percent from long range against the Bucks, which is well below the league average of 34.4 percent. The team has admittedly faced mostly subpar offenses thus far, and there is no way that they keep opponents in the 20s on threes all year. Some of this is small sample size and good fortune. But long term these things don’t happen by mistake. Many of the best defensive teams in the league last season (Warriors, Pacers, Bulls) also happened to defend 3-point shooting the best.

Defense at the rim 

The team is making it very difficult for opponents to score around the basket, which is where teams want to score, and where teams score most efficiently. The Bucks rank third overall in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage among shots within three feet of the hoop. Only the Grizzlies and Pacers are better in that area. This is foremost a testament to Sanders, but it is also a team effort, because Sanders is only playing roughly half of all minutes at this point. The Bucks are allowing a lot of shots in this 0-3 foot range, which is a bit of a concern, but they are contesting those shots. Some video proof below.