The Milwaukee Bucks are big favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. According to Caesars Sportsbook, they enter the missing-230 bubble to reach the NBA Finals in October.
Still, respect from Vegas is one thing, but execution in Orlando is another. While the Bucks hold the league’s best record, reigning MVP and best defense, these guys are beatable. Just ask world champion Toronto Raptors, who beat them last year with a simple plan that could be repeated this year.
With the Boston Celtics taking the Bucks in each team’s restart debut on Friday (6:30 pm ET on ESPN), here are the three rules every competitor will have to follow to leave the apparent juggernaut in Milwaukee.
Rule 1: Keep Giannis away from the bucket
Giannis Antetokounmpo enters the bubble as the most efficient volume scorer in the league. He is currently publishing an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 58.3% this season, the highest such mark among the top 50 NBA players.
How does he do it? Dunks and layups – most of them. Look at this:
More than almost any other modern superstar, Antetokounmpo dominates with one old-school shooting location. His impressive overall efficiency numbers stand out from his all-world abilities to attack and end up in the rack. If you can keep it out of the paint, it’s deadly. If you can’t, it’s over.
Consider these two stats:
This season, Antetokounmpo tried 727 shots in the paint and converted 66% of them. Out of 81 NBA players with at least 300 paint shots this season, he is the fifth most efficient.
He also tried 393 non-paint shots. His% eFG on those attempts is only 43.6%. Out of 116 players with at least 300 non-paint shots, it ranks 109 in efficiency.
It’s basically Shaquille O’Neal in the paint, but Andrew Wiggins out of it. Shaq won four titles by dominating inside. If Milwaukee wins one this year, it will be because no one can stifle Antetokounmpo’s inner ability. But when the Bucks were auctioned last year, Toronto did just that.
During the 2018-19 regular season, Antetokounmpo led the league by averaging 17.5 points per game in the paint. His dominance extended into the postseason, as Milwaukee went 8-1 in the first two rounds. But after Toronto head coach Nick Nurse moved Kawhi Leonard over Giannis, the Raptors won four straight with the NBA’s most dangerous inside scorer.
In Milwaukee’s 10 postseason wins last season, Giannis averaged 15.8 PPG vs. 10.8 PPG in the fifth loss.
The good news for Bucks fans is that Leonard is now in Los Angeles. The bad news is that he and the Raps have given a roadmap to the league. If a team can see how it can reduce Giannis ’internal roll, history can repeat itself.
It may not be much sought after. Two potential second-round opponents have already found success here.
At Christmas in Philly, Giannis made just 6 of 15 paint shots as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Bucks by 12. Brett Brown used a combination of Al Horford and Joel Embiid to defend Giannis and keep ‘ away from the edge.
A few months later, Antetokounmpo made 5 of 10 paint shots as Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat held Milwaukee to just 89 points in an impressive 16-point win. (If there’s one defender in the East who should be afraid of the Bucks, it’s Adebayo).
Milwaukee should still be a favorite to beat Miami or Philly in a seven-game series, but games are key in the playoffs. Both teams have already shown they may be able to cut the MVP and put the onus on Milwaukee side pieces.
Rule 2: Make Middleton beat you
Speaking of side options, Khris Middleton has been incredible this season. He became a 50/40/90 shooter, an NBA All-Star and, of course, a very rich man. It’s in the first five years, a $ 178 million contract because the Bucks believe it might make a difference when it matters a lot.
Middleton became one of the most efficient volume shooters in the league. Look at this:
But when the Bucks needed Middleton to thrive in the Toronto series last year, he went the other way. Milwaukee gave up the chance to go 3-0 in a six-point loss in Game 3, with Middleton firing 3 for 16 and posting nine points in over 44 minutes. Oof. Then, with the series draw 2-2 in Game 5 at home, Middleton didn’t respond, going 2 for 9 in 36 minutes. Again, the Bucks lost six. The rest is Canadian history.
Antetokounmpo has become a perennial MVP candidate because he is the most ferocious two-way player in the world. But his case is also helped by sometimes looking alone in big games. He can easily seem so much more precious than any other player on his team. Middleton can definitely change that in the bubble, but he can announce Bucks opponents who will design their game plans to make him try it.
Rule 3: Make your 3s
At the other end of the court, Mike Budenholzer’s top-ranked defense famously protects the rim at all costs while brave opponents beat them with the shirt. It’s an extreme dichotomy: No team in the league gave the fewest points in the paint, and no team gave up more 3-pointers.
Their defensive philosophy is built on the premise that you can’t protect everything effectively. Considering the massive staff of their place in the Lopez and Giannis twins, the Bucks can dominate rim protection and defensive glass, while spending fewer resources on closeouts at the edges.
No team has given up 3s more open than the Bucks. Milwaukee gave up 1,301 points of 3 points (7.6 per game) with the closest defender at least six feet away, each tracking the Second Spectrum. While it’s a risky game to play, overall it worked well. The Bucks were the most efficient defense in the league in each of Budenholzer’s seasons. But when the shooters are hot, Bucks ’defense can fail, which is what happened against the Raptors.
Go back to the final four games of those conference finals, when a new father and Canadian folk hero Fred VanVleet caught fire and made 15 of his 25 3-point attempts. That’s wild.
While VanVleet is a good 3-point shooter, he’s not Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. Many NBA teams now have shooters capable of catching fire. The Bucks ’top Eastern rivals – Toronto, Boston and Miami – excel from downtown, and they all have features that can travel to a few games, punishing Milwaukee’s tendency to give up a juicy look from downtown.
Here is a sample of Eastern sharpshooters and their 3-point open numbers:
The league is now fraught with setbacks, but looking at that table, some teams have more guys who fit better against Milwaukee’s defense. Miami seems to be in a unique position to punish Milwaukee’s defensive approach, and this is more than just hypothetical. Miami is 2-0 against Milwaukee this season partly because of Adebayo, and partly because their shooters made 42% of their 3s and collected 51 points per game from downtown in those wins.
The point is that what happened before can happen again. Milwaukee deserves to be the favorites in the East, but the Bucks are by no means invincible. Just ask Fred VanVleet.