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Friday's notebook: Rim-protection rules day in Milwaukee

The Bucks have locked down the interior as we dig into 4 noteworthy stats

Happy Holidays! We are 34% through the 2019-20 NBA season.

Here are some things of note as we head into the Week 9 weekend and look forward to five games on Christmas.

1. Bucks protect the rim at all costs

The Bucks and Lakers didn’t just enter their matchup on Thursday with the best records in the league. They also ranked first and second in points in the paint differential, with Milwaukee having outscored its opponents by 14.4 points in the paint per game over its first 28 games. L.A. was a plus-10.1 in the paint through its first 28. For context, entering Thursday’s action, the Memphis Grizzlies ranked third in points in the paint differential (plus-6.6).

The Lakers actually outscored the Bucks, 42-34, in the paint on Thursday. The difference in Milwaukee’s 111-104 win was points from 3-point range (48-36 in favor of Milwaukee) and from the free-throw line (23-18).

But the Lakers’ 42 points in the paint were well below their average of 53.4 (prior to Thursday). Only 33% (26) of their 80 shots came in the restricted area, down from 37% over their first 28 games. The Bucks’ win was just the second time in the last 18 games that LeBron James was held to fewer than 12 points in the paint.

The biggest reason the Bucks have the league’s No. 1 defense (102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) is that they protect the basket much better than any other team. Though the league takes more 3-pointers every season, shots in the restricted area remain the most valuable, worth 1.25 points per attempt.

The Bucks are No. 1, by healthy margins, in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (54.9%) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that came from the restricted area (25.5%) The 26.0 ppg they’ve allowed in the restricted area would be the fewest in the last five seasons.

It helps to have great rim protectors. Among players who have defended at least five shots at the rim per game, Brook Lopez ranks as the league’s second-best rim protector, with opponents having shot just 46.5% at the rim when he’s been there. They’ve shot even worse with Giannis Antetokounmpo (45.1%) or Robin Lopez (45.1%) at the rim.

But the Bucks’ rim protection goes beyond their personnel. It’s about their scheme, which prioritizes rim protection over everything else. Two possessions midway through the first quarter Thursday illustrated that — and what the Bucks are willing to sacrifice to prevent the most efficient shots on the floor.

The play was for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to come out of the left corner off screens from James and Anthony Davis, then take a dribble handoff from JaVale McGee at the right elbow, and attack the basket. After the screens, James and Davis popped out to the perimeter, while McGee rolled to the rim.

The first time the Lakers ran it, Caldwell-Pope drew a commitment from Brook Lopez and tossed up a lob for McGee. But Antetokounmpo sunk off his man (Davis) and deflected the lob. The Lakers saw what was open, so they ran the same play two possessions later, with Caldwell-Pope kicking out to Davis, who missed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

McGee has shot 70% on shots in the restricted area, while Davis has shot 27% on above-the-break 3-pointers. Even with the added value of a 3-pointer, the math works out for the Bucks in giving up the latter to prevent the former.

The Bucks will give up some 3-pointers. Last season, they set an NBA record by allowing their opponents to make 1,073 of them. This season, they’re on pace to allow 1,162.

Because the Bucks’ weak-side defenders pinch in to help protect the paint, open 3-pointers can be had on the opposite side of the floor. The Lakers’ first possession of the game was a “Hammer” play to get Danny Green a weak-side corner 3-pointer. And during TNT’s “Inside Trax” segment on Thursday, Lakers coach Frank Vogel was heard telling his team to look for “second-side 3s.”

The Bucks, though, will take the math that comes with protecting the rim much better than any other team in the league. (Milwaukee also ranks in the top five in opponent free throw rate and defensive rebounding percentage.) To get those open 3-pointers, you will need to make tough passes across the floor and shoot before the Bucks’ close out. James can make those passes and Danny Green was 7-for-12 from beyond the arc on Thursday (it’s not a coincidence that his season high for attempts came against the Bucks), but Lakers not named Green were 5-for-23.

Davis still scored 18 points in the paint on Thursday. He’s too big and too skilled to keep him from scoring inside. But his points at the rim were more about his talent than the actions the Lakers ran to get him there.

Midway through the second quarter, the Lakers ran a “Spain” pick-and-roll, with Rajon Rondo and Davis running pick-and-roll from the top, and Green setting a back-screen on Ersan Ilyasova (guarding Davis). Antetokounmpo (guarding Green) had to help on Rondo’s drive, giving Davis a clean roll to the basket. But Donte DiVincenzo left Caldwell-Pope in the weak-side corner, sold out, and deflected Rondo’s lob pass.

It’s the personnel. It’s the scheme. And it’s the adherence to the scheme that makes the Bucks the best defensive team in the league.

They’ll take the No. 1 defense to Madison Square Garden on Saturday (7:30 ET, League Pass). They’ll then host the Pacers on Sunday (7 ET, League Pass) before visiting Philadelphia on Christmas Day (2:30 ET, ABC).

It’s trivia time …

> Can you name the 3 teams who haven’t played any rookies this season?

(The answer is item No. 4 this week.)

2. Least-used most-used lineups

The Timberwolves lost (or won?) a battle of losing streaks on Wednesday, dropping a rest-advantage game at home to the Pelicans, who had the longest losing streak of the season (13 games). The Wolves have now lost eight straight; They entered December in seventh place in the West with a 10-8 record, and they’ve fallen to 12th at 10-16.

The Wolves’ offense has actually been better in December (111.5 points scored per 100 possessions) than it was prior (106.5). But the Wolves rank last defensively this month, having allowed 121.2 points per 100 possessions.

They’ve been relatively healthy. Seven of the top eight Timberwolves in regard to minutes per night have played at least 22 of their 26 games. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve had lineup continuity.

The Wolves’ most-used lineup — Jarrett Culver, Treveon Graham, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns — has played just 75 minutes together. That’s the fewest minutes played for any team’s most-used lineup, 369 fewer minutes than the Nuggets’ starters have played together.

Fewest minutes, most-used lineup
Team Lineup MIN +/-
Minnesota Culver-Graham-Wiggins-Covington-Towns 75 +18
Golden State Burks-Robinson-Green-Paschall-Cauley-Stein 76 -24
New Orleans Holiday-Redick-Ingram-Williams-Hayes 88 +32
Atlanta Young-Reddish-Hunter-Parker-Jones 97 -51
Portland Lillard-McCollum-Bazemore-Anthony-Whiteside 115 +18
Through Dec. 19, 2019

Minnesota has had the same starting lineup — Josh Okogie on the wing instead of Graham — in five of their eight December games. But that lineup has averaged just 9.1 minutes on the floor together in those five starts, and it’s been outscored by 33 points in its 46 total minutes this month.

As the Wolves head out on a four-game trip that begins in Denver on Friday (9 ET, League Pass), coach Ryan Saunders is still looking for answers in regard to who he should be putting out on the floor.

3. Merry (efficient) Christmas!

The Warriors and Blazers ranked first and third in offensive efficiency last season, scoring 115.0 and 113.7 points per 100 possessions, respectively. But as they both lost on Christmas night in 2018, they combined to score just 197 points on 206 possessions.

For the Warriors, their loss to the Lakers — in which Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant combined to shoot 12-for-37 — was their sixth-least efficient offensive game of last season. For the Blazers, their loss in Utah — in which Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic combined to shoot 16-for-45 — was their fifth-least efficient game of last season.

The Christmas schedule always features marquee matchups. But sometimes, games on Christmas aren’t so pretty. Last season, ten teams combined to score 104.6 points per 100 possessions on Christmas. That was much lower than the 109.4 per 100 the league scored over the five days of games prior (Dec. 19-23) and the 109.2 it scored over the five days of games after (Dec. 26-30).

The ugliest Christmas in recent memory was 2015, when only one of the 10 teams playing scored a point per possession. That year, five of the 10 teams scored fewer than 90 per 100 and the average score that day was 94-87.

So are all Christmas slates less efficient than usual? Actually, no. In five of the last 10 years (skipping over 2011-12, when Christmas was the first day of the season), Christmas games have been, on average, more efficient than the games played in the 10 days around Christmas. Offenses were particularly sharp on Christmas of 2016, which featured a fantastic Finals rematch in Cleveland.

League-wide efficiency on & around Christmas
Year Before Xmas After
2018 109.4 104.6 109.2
2017 109.6 109.4 108.2
2016 108.8 113.4 108.4
2015 105.8 91.0 106.5
2014 106.8 108.4 104.1
2013 106.2 106.7 105.5
2012 103.3 107.0 105.1
2010 105.0 102.4 104.5
2009 104.1 102.3 106.7
2008 105.6 100.7 107.1
Efficiency = Points scored per 100 possessions

Before = Dec. 19-23

After = Dec. 26-30

We’ll see how things go on Wednesday, when the Christmas slate features two matchups between four of the five best teams in the Eastern Conference, along with Clippers-Lakers. Five of the 10 teams playing on Christmas rank in the top 10 offensively, while seven of the 10 rank in the top 10 defensively.

4. The trivia answer …

The three teams that haven’t played any rookies this season are the Mavs, Bucks and Magic.

Two other teams — the Raptors and Jazz — haven’t played any second-year players.

The Lakers have played three first-or second-year players, but those three — Kostas Antetokounmpo, Talen Horton-Tucker and Zach Norvell Jr. — have played just 10 total minutes. That’s 0.1% of the total minutes logged by Lakers players. That’s the league’s lowest ratio, and the Lakers are followed by the Jazz, Nuggets and Spurs as teams that are all-in on vets.

The Sacramento Kings are also in the bottom five, though they’ll probably drop now that Marvin Bagley is back.

Lowest % of minutes from rookies or 2nd-year players
Team Rookies 2nd Year Total %MIN
L.A. Lakers 7 3 10 0.1%
Utah 62 0 62 1%
Denver 153 9 162 3%
San Antonio 2 251 253 4%
Sacramento 200 168 368 6%
Through Dec. 19, 2019

On the other end of the list are four teams from the Southeast Division and the Memphis Grizzlies …

Highest % of minutes from rookies or 2nd-year players
Team Rookies 2ndYear Total %MIN
Atlanta 1,895 1,428 3,323 47%
Charlotte 1,175 2,015 3,190 43%
Memphis 1,511 1,271 2,782 41%
Miami 1,888 789 2,677 39%
Washington 954 1,418 2,372 38%
Through Dec. 19, 2019

The Heat are 20-8, while the other four teams above are no fewer than five games under .500.

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

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