Lauri Markkanen and his Chicago Bulls weren’t doing a lot of things right, but they were doing one thing extremely right against the Milwaukee Bucks the other night.
Never mind that the Bulls tied a 54-year-old franchise record by shooting exactly zero free throws in the first half. Or that they’d given up more than twice as many points off turnovers prior to halftime. Or were shooting just 35% from 2-point range to that point.
Chicago’s shooters had attempted 24 shots from the arc, had hit 10 of them (41.7%) and were bothering the Bucks into 1-of-14 troubles from out there. No wonder the Bulls had erased an early 13-point deficit to trail by a mere three halfway through.
“They hit a ton of 3s in that second quarter,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, “and sometimes that’s hard to sustain for a game.”
Sure enough, the Bulls did “come back to” the Bucks a little in the second half – they hit 7 of 20 – and Milwaukee’s defense got a bit more successful. It helped, too, that the Bucks got even hotter (10 of 18) on 3-pointers than their hosts had been at United Center Monday. That made the outcome, a 123-102 Milwaukee victory, look like so many others in what has been the Bucks’ march to the NBA’s best record (now 31-5).
But the before-and-after snapshots of that game pulled back the curtain on a Milwaukee weakness, a vulnerability that has shown itself in the Bucks’ past nine defeats – dating back to the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto – and even in their two most recent victories.
It’s been cited or alluded to before, but it stands out more dramatically lately in contrast to all the wonderfulness emanating from Giannis Antetokounmpo and his crew this season. It goes like this:
The Bucks’ system is predicated on outshooting their opponents from 3-point range. Offensively, that spreads defenses and gives Antetokounmpo room to roam or romp to the rim. Symbiotically, the more havoc he is wreaking inside, the better looks his teammates get when launching from outside.
Defensively, Milwaukee all but dares opposing shooters to do to them what they do to others. Contesting 3-point attempts is low on the priority list, and Bucks big men, like Brook and Robin Lopez, sink into the paint rather than let themselves get drawn far from the basket.
And it mostly works, or has over the past season-and-not-quite-half, evident in their 91-27 record since Budenholzer installed his philosophy to start the 2018-19 season. The Bucks are satisfied to play the percentages and live with the results.
Even when things turn against them. Consider:
1. After being the only team to win 60 games last season and breezing along at 8-1 through the first two playoff rounds, life abruptly got harder for the Bucks in the East finals. The Raptors beat them at their own game six times in six tries, outscoring (258-213) and outshooting (.374-.310) Milwaukee on 3-pointers in the series. Over the final four games – all Bucks’ losses, wiping out their 2-0 lead – Toronto went 61-of-156 (.391) from the arc to Milwaukee’s 47-of-140 (.336).
2. The Bucks have been outshot on 3s in each of their five defeats this season. The disparity in those games? The Heat, Celtics, Jazz, Mavericks and Sixers were a combined 85-of-206 (.413) vs. Milwaukee’s 65-of-209 (.311).
3. The stats have been flipped in Milwaukee’s 31 victories. Opponents have shot 426-of-1,188 (.359) compared to the Bucks’ 436-1,186 (.368).
4. Similar to the game in Chicago, the Bucks ran into 3-point trouble at home against Minnesota Wednesday. They hit only nine of their 36 attempts (.250) to start the New Year, while the Timberwolves went 15-of-46 from deep. What happened? A Wolves squad missing both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins hung surprisingly close on the road in a 106-104 loss.
And now the Bucks are about to face San Antonio in a home-and-away pair of games Saturday and Monday. Though not known for their commitment to the 3-ball, the Spurs have gone 45-of-97 (.464) from out there in their past three games compared to 283-of-794 (.356) in their first 30. Even mid-range master LaMarcus Aldridge has been out of character, going 14-of-20 in his last five.
You might think that adjustments would be in order. If not in the game plan Milwaukee takes into each of its contests, then at least coming out of the locker room at halftime when the stats tilt the wrong way.
You would think wrong. The Bucks are the Bucks. It’s how they play, it’s how they win and it’s what they do.
“We say that fairly often: ‘The worm is going to turn,’” Budenholzer said in Chicago. “If we’re the team that hasn’t made any, probably it’s gonna change and we’re gonna make some. If the other team has been super-hot, hopefully, some nights or most nights they cool off.”
No decisions as a group to shift the offense, the coach said, and few discernible temptations in individuals to shy away from what isn’t working on a particular night.
“We’re gonna keep shooting,” Budenholzer said. “We’re gonna keep letting it fly. We do want to attack the paint and drive, but we should be doing that [anyway]. We should be shooting 3s whether we’re 1-for-14 or 10-for-14. Our guys don’t tend to change.”
Basketball coaches forever have preached that, if your jump shot isn’t falling, pound the ball inside for a layup or a trip to the foul line. But not this coach for these players.
Said wing Khris Middleton: “If we’re forcing up shots – jump shots, bad 3s – then we have to force the issue more and get into the paint. But a lot of our looks we missed in the first half [at Chicago], they were great looks, wide open shots that we’ve just got to knock down.”
“No, just trust the process,” guard George Hill said. “Teams get hot, but they know our defense is pretty good. We want to give up jump shots – we don’t want guys in our paint.”
The trade-off might make acceptable what seems a little stubborn. Milwaukee ranks dead last in 3-point shots and 3-pointers allowed. But no defense allows fewer 2-pointers, on average, or at a lower percentage (.441). The Bucks also rank in the top five in fewest free throws bestowed, which means they’re excellent at defending without fouling.
“If there’s an individual who gets hot, we may adjust to him, we may change up our coverage,” Brook Lopez said. “But we try to be who we are at the defensive end. Our identity is who we are. That’s why we’ve been so good and able to repeat our success.”
So the Bucks keep playing the percentages, the most important of which for now is that .861 next to their 31-5 record.
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