Film Study: Early offense driving Bucks to series lead vs. Hawks

The Bucks' Game 3 victory highlights Milwaukee's ability to score early in the clock while stretching out opposing possessions.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Trae Young popped off in Game 1, but he’s been staring into the teeth of the Bucks’ defense since.

The latest injury in a postseason full of them is a bone bruise on the right foot of Trae Young, suffered late in the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. Young, who played eight fourth-quarter minutes after suffering the injury, is listed as questionable for Game 4 on Tuesday (8:30 ET, TNT).

If Young can’t play, the Atlanta Hawks will have a tough time trying to score against what has been the No. 1 defense in the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks have allowed 103.2 points per 100 possessions over their 14 postseason games, and in the conference finals, Atlanta has scored just 84.0 per 100 in 35 minutes with Young off the floor. That number is even lower (35 points on 50 offensive possessions — 70 per 100) if you discount the garbage-time fourth quarter of Game 2.

The Hawks have secondary playmakers, but they haven’t found a way to score without their star. Over the entire playoffs, Atlanta has scored 21.0 more points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor (111.2) than they have with him off the floor (90.2). That’s the biggest on-off differential among rotation players on the four teams that reached the conference finals.

Of course, on defense, the Hawks have been much better with Young off the floor. Some of that differential can be attributed to the opponents’ reserves (lesser offensive players) being on the floor when Young isn’t. And some of it can be attributed to Young’s defensive issues.

The Hawks have lost two straight in the East finals in decidedly different ways. What must they do differently in Game 4?

The Hawks have done a decent job of not allowing Young to be picked on in their half-court defense. But the Bucks have found ways to take advantage of Young and the Hawks in transition.

League-wide, effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds of the shot and drops after that. What’s special about the Bucks is their ability to get those early-clock shots for themselves without allowing a lot of them from their opponents. In the regular season, they were the only team that ranked in the top five in both the percentage of their shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (16.5%, fourth-highest) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that came in the first six seconds (12.6%, third-lowest).

They’ve had about the same differential (16.3% vs. 12.3%) in the conference finals. And the film from the Bucks’ 113-102 victory in Game 3 shows just how they’ve been able to pull it off.

1. Contest and go

In this space on Sunday, it was noted how the Bucks dominated the restricted area in Game 2. And one example shown was Jrue Holiday leaking out for a layup as Young failed to get back on defense after launching a 3. Midway through the first quarter in Game 3, it happened again. Young missed a pull-up 3 and Holiday was well behind him by the time he pivoted to get back on defense. Result: An easy dunk.

Later in the first, Young got isolated on Bobby Portis. He passed to John Collins and, when Collins missed a corner 3, again failed to get back on defense, allowing Portis to leak out. Collins sprinted back and picked up the first of five fouls that kept his Game 3 playing time limited to just 23 minutes.

The Bucks have been switching screens with everybody but Brook Lopez, Portis has been the guy that the Hawks’ guards have looked to target in isolations, and that’s worked out well for the Hawks at times. It’s also worked out well for the Bucks, both with Young (see above) and Lou Williams.

Twice in Game 3, Portis contested a Williams jumper, leaked out, and established early position against Williams under the other basket. In the first quarter, Portis got an easy layup:

Bobby Portis layup vs. Lou Williams

Late in the third quarter, Danilo Gallinari was able to get back and knock the ball away, but Portis recovered it and again scored easily over Williams.

2. Push, push, push

The Bucks’ success early in the clock is partly about those mismatches, partly about bad transition defense from Atlanta (see the two Young examples above), and partly about the Bucks consistently pushing the ball up the floor and seeking opportunities to catch the Hawks on their heels.

The Bucks have pushed off turnovers, off missed shots, and off made shots. Late in the first quarter, after Young made a floater, Holiday had the ball across the midcourt line with 21 seconds still on the shot clock. He didn’t have a numbers advantage, but attacked the paint, drew two defenders, and found a trailing Lopez for a dunk:

Jrue Holiday push, Brook Lopez dunk

3. Not matched up

When the ball is pushed up the floor quickly, the defense might not get to its desired matchups — and sometimes, it might not get matched up at all. After another Atlanta bucket late in the second quarter, Holiday pushed the ball up again, and nobody was guarding Khris Middleton. Holiday threw a brilliant left-handed pass across the court for a Middleton 3 before Young could get there:

Khris Middleton 3-pointer

Midway through the third, Giannis Antetokounmpo got the ball up quickly after an Atlanta miss. There were three Hawks with two Bucks on the left side of the floor and only Bogdan Bogdanovic with Lopez and PJ Tucker on the right side. Antetokounmpo got the ball to Lopez just as Tucker set a back-screen on Bogdanovic and there was no other defender there to prevent a dunk.

4. Gamble and pay

Young could blame his fourth-quarter defense on the foot injury he suffered late in the third. But he did have enough energy to make one speedy transition push himself, whipping a ridiculous pass to Bogdanovic, who missed an open corner 3.

On the other end of the floor, Young had a couple of rough transition moments as a 22-5 Milwaukee run turned a seven-point Atlanta lead into 10-point deficit. After a Williams turnover, Young was a little slow to react, but did hustle back and had a good angle to slow down Pat Connaughton on the break. And if he could stay in front of him, Onyeka Okongwu would have been able to get back and prevent or contest Connaughton’s drive. But Young went for a steal as Connaughton ran by for a layup:

Pat Connaughton fast break

A few possessions later, Young missed a long 3. And instead of getting back on defense, he went for another steal in the backcourt, putting himself behind the play as Antetokounmpo pushed the ball up the floor:

Trae Young backcourt gamble

The Hawks still had four defenders back against Antetokounmpo, Connaughton and Tucker. But the ball was eventually swung to a trailing Middleton, who drained the wide-open, go-ahead 3 as Young was jogging back:

Khris Middleton 3-pointer

The Hawks’ transition defense wasn’t great in the regular season. They ranked 13th in the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ possessions that were in transition (15.1%) and 25th in points per possession allowed in transition (1.17). In the conference finals, they’re still having the same issues.

5. Working late

The Hawks’ offense hasn’t been able to make up for it with some early offense of its own. Holiday did have a couple of bad transition plays (one, two) himself in the first two minutes of Game 3, allowing Clint Capela to run by him for Atlanta’s first two baskets of the night. But the Bucks cleaned things up after that.

Not only did they allow the Hawks only nine field goal attempts in the first six seconds of the shot clock, they forced them to take 23 in the last six seconds of the shot clock. That was more shots in the last six seconds than Atlanta took in the first two games combined (22).

The Bucks’ defense has been able to consistently take an extra second or two off the clock by having Holiday picking up the ball in the backcourt. The switching also takes time off the clock, because it flattens out the Atlanta offense. And the Hawks play into it themselves by matchup hunting against the switches, isolating their guards or posting Gallinari and Collins.

Early in the fourth quarter, Middleton missed a jumper and Holiday picked up Williams just above the foul line, so that, with 16 seconds on the shot clock, Williams was just crossing the midcourt line with Holiday still attached.

Jrue Holiday backcourt defense

Tucker then switched a Gallinari screen for Kevin Huerter, preventing penetration and running some more time off the clock.

P.J. Tucker switch

Gallinari took Middleton into the post, but was forced to shoot a tough, contested fadeaway with two seconds left on the shot clock.

Danilo Gallinari fadeaway jumper

Up next: Game 4

As the Hawks try to even the series in Game 4 on Tuesday, the health of Young is obviously concern No. 1. Whether they have their star or not, their offense will probably have to do some work late in the clock again. That’s not ideal, but through three games, they have a solid effective field goal percentage of 55.6% on shots in the last six seconds.

To get a win, though, Atlanta will absolutely have to be better at preventing Milwaukee from scoring early in the clock. Give Holiday and the Bucks credit for consistently getting the ball up the floor quickly, but many of those transition and secondary-break buckets have been a result of avoidable mistakes on the Hawks’ part. Maybe the Hawks can’t be much better offensively than they’ve been thus far in this series, but there’s nothing wrong with winning ugly.

Good defense starts in transition. And transition defense may be the biggest key to the Hawks making this a 2-2 series.

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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