2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)

Film Study: Bucks dominate the restricted area

After constant demands to change their game, the Bucks found success against the Hawks with an old formula.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Brook Lopez and the Bucks are locking down the paint on both ends of the court.

The Milwaukee Bucks made changes this season in order to be better prepared for the playoffs. But the biggest reason they were so dominant in the previous two regular seasons is one of the biggest reasons they’re three wins from The Finals, having thrashed the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday.

Those two years in which the Bucks had the best record in the league were about dominance at the rim. Over those two seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 400 more points in the restricted area than any other player. And over those two seasons, the Bucks had the No. 1 defense (by wide margins) in regard to both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that came in the restricted area.

This season, the Bucks weren’t quite as dominant at the rim. They outscored their opponents by 7.6 restricted-area points per game, a rate which ranked second in the league (to New Orleans’ +8.5) and was down from +12.2 in 2019-20.

But through 13 playoff games, the Bucks are at +14.0 restricted-area points per game. And their 125-91 victory in Game 2 on Friday was the second time in this postseason (the first was Game 1 against Miami) that they outscored their opponents by more than 30 points in the restricted area.

The final tally was 46-14, and that was with three of the Hawks’ seven restricted-area buckets coming in the garbage-time fourth quarter. The game was essentially decided by a second quarter in which the Bucks outscored the Hawks, 22-2, at the basket.

That is total control around the basket on both ends of the floor.

A defensive tweak

The Bucks didn’t make a huge defensive adjustment from Game 1. While they did have Bobby Portis switching screens when he was in the game, Brook Lopez continued to drop back in the paint.

But there was a subtle difference from Game 1…

Trae Young tip in


On the first Trae Young-Clint Capela pick-and-roll of Game 2, Lopez didn’t retreat all the way back under the basket and was able to prevent Young from getting to a comfortable floater…

Jrue Holiday block


Lopez had dropped all the way back in Game 1 to prevent lobs to Capela. But the low defender (Jrue Holiday in both of the plays above) is also serving the same purpose by sinking off his man in the corner and “tagging” Capela’s roll to the rim. If Holiday is there to meet Capela and take away his launch space, Lopez should be able to take away some of Young’s space.

In that initial Young-Capela pick-and-roll in Game 2, Holiday was able to both prevent the lob and recover out to block John Collin’s corner 3. As noted in this space prior to Game 2, defense is about the energy and execution within the scheme as much as the scheme itself.

A few minutes later, Capela set a ball screen for Young on the right side of the floor. Lopez challenged Young a few feet outside the restricted area, both weak-side defenders sunk to Capela’s roll, and Young committed his first of nine turnovers…

Trae Young turnover


As Young got into the paint, he and Capela were surrounded by all five Milwaukee defenders, with Khris Middleton even helping off the strong-side corner…

Bucks defense


The Hawks will probably look at that film and realize that they’ve got to find those open shooters on the weak side.

One way to make it more difficult to tag the roll man is running a pick-and-roll from the side of the floor with an empty corner. The Hawks did that midway through the first quarter, and you can see Lopez needing to drop lower with no low defender to help on Capela. But P.J. Tucker pinched off of Kevin Huerter on the weak side and disrupted Young’s path to the paint…

Hawks empty-corner pick-and-roll

Protect the rim and go from there

The Hawks’ defensive issues in Game 2 started with their offense, where 14 of their 20 turnovers were live balls. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Bucks shot 14-for-17 (82%) in the first six seconds of the shot clock and 36-for-79 (46%) otherwise. But not all of those buckets were off turnovers. Young was also guilty of watching his shot as Holiday leaked out for a layup…

Jrue Holiday leak-out


In the half-court, the Hawks just didn’t do what the Bucks did, which was prioritize rim protection and help off shooters if that’s what it takes. If Giannis Antetokounmpo has the ball near the basket, that should be the first mole you whack. But early in the second quarter, the Hawks let the two-time MVP attack Danilo Gallinari with minimal help, failing to attack the spin move that the Brooklyn Nets were sitting on for most of the conference semifinals…

Giannis Antetokounmpo spin move


Midway through the second, Capela was able to stay in front of the spin move, but got no help as Antetokounmpo pivoted to a reverse layup…

Giannis Antetokounmpo up-and-under move


Bringing more help to Antetokounmpo will open some other things up, but the Bucks have shot just 30.9% from 3-point range in the playoffs. Even if they were shooting well, the Hawks simply can’t allow so may layups.

At this point in the playoffs, you have to be able to deal with multiple problems defensively. It starts stopping transition and protecting the rim. Then you go from there.

Up next: Game 3

The Hawks should be prepared for the Bucks to suffocate more drives in Game 3 on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Atlanta obviously has to do a better job of taking care of the ball, primarily. And if the Bucks are taking away the paint, shooters should be open. But getting them in-rhythm shots could require quicker decisions.

With their size, Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic might more easily make the skip pass over the tag defender, and Young could then attack the rotating defense like he did on one early third-quarter possession on Friday…

Trae Young baseline floater


In Game 1, Milwaukee had more success when they switched pick-and-rolls than when they didn’t, but Atlanta can run more with Collins as the screener. The Bucks will switch those, but if Collins can get underneath Young’s defender, he can roll all the way to the rim or draw help and kick to an open shooter. The empty-corner pick-and-roll could also be explored more.

Young could also reject screens or isolate, so that he’s not driving into the same kind of crowd. And if the Bucks are going to have Portis switch screens, Young should definitely target that matchup.

On the other end of the floor, Atlanta will need to build a stronger wall against Antetokounmpo to limit his shots at the rim. Then they’ll have to make the kinds of recoveries and rotations that Holiday made when he blocked Collins’ corner 3.

Easier said than done. But this is the conference finals, and getting wins at this stage of the season should be difficult.