In “Watch With Me,” I watch part of a game and choose various clips that I find interesting, detailing what I’m looking at. Join me in watching the first three quarters of the Bucks-Timberwolves preseason game from last Friday.
We talk a lot about spacing, and how shooting gives you spacing. But spacing isn’t just about having five shooters outside the three-point line. If you have shooters on the perimeter, you still need ball and man movement to get the spacing you want. Watch on this clip as Giannis Antetokounmpo has an iso at the top of the key, but the gaps are crowded so he doesn’t have a lane to drive and ultimately travels:
Now imagine if Brook Lopez were in the dunker spot along the baseline and one of the wings was in his corner. There would be much larger gap spacing. Or, better yet, if the ball was moving or players were cutting through, it would also open up gaps and make it hard to stop a Giannis drive. There’s more to spacing than just shooting ability.
Often we ding players for not helping enough, but there’s also such a thing as helping too much. Watch Karl-Anthony Towns here. Minnesota has all five defenders in the paint, but it’s not necessary. The pick-and-roll is contained, with Taj Gibson in front of the ball. Towns doesn’t need to be in the paint like this when his man is a threat from distance.
Stationing Brook Lopez in the corner is interesting. The vast majority of Lopez’s threes over the past two years were non-corner attempts, but he’s made 45 of 100 attempts in the corners over those years and 33% of his non-corner threes. If that’s not a fluke and he’s even close to that good of a shooter in the corners, stationing him there more often could be very valuable.
I wrote in the most recent Feature Film about how in transition defense “it starts on the shot.” This is a great example from Milwaukee, and Minnesota doesn’t have a chance to get anything in transition even if they wanted to run. When the shot goes up the Bucks have three players below the free-throw line, but when the rebound is secured, all five are behind the three-point line.
But it’s also clear from this clip that there’s a reason why Mike Budenholzer’s teams don’t offensive rebound much. The center is taking a three and everyone else getting back. You’re not going to get many second chances that way.
When there are shooters around Giannis in transition, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Here the Wolves suck in and pack the paint to cut off Antetokounmpo’s path to the rim. Gibson and Keita Bates-Diop form a wall in the paint that Stan Van Gundy would be proud of. But that means it takes two players to stop Giannis so there will be an open shooter somewhere.
On the other hand, if you don’t pack the paint to the fullest extent, then this happens:
The Wolves are in the paint. Towns gets to a good spot. But he’s maybe six inches too far out. Instead of getting in front of Giannis, he’s off to the side, which is just enough of a gap for Giannis to slip through and finish.
Minnesota, though, is doing the right thing. Better to live with the Giannis pass-out than to give him openings to the rim. Here, once again, Minnesota does a good job closing the gaps with Giannis trying to attack from the top of the key. I think the Bucks got lucky with a no-call, and it was just a great shot. This is good defense, and Giannis should have looked to his shooters, as both Malcolm Brogdon and Ersan Ilyasova are open on the wings.
Because of Giannis’ lack of range, most teams defend him by giving him a big cushion on the perimeter in the hopes of having enough space to absorb his attacks. But if he starts doing this on a regular basis?
Gulp. This was the second pull-up three he hit this game.
I don’t want this to just turn into me fawning over Giannis. But maybe that’s what should happen when he puts up 32-12-10 on 13-of-17 shooting with three blocks and a steal in 25 minutes.
There is a lot that makes Giannis very good. But what makes him great, in my book, is that he can do this:
Giannis is a terror attacking the rim, but his willingness to pass and his vision is what takes his offense over the top. This is an iso, but he sees how much the Wolves are collapsing on him and throws the no-look pass with great timing. He could have tried to attack and then kicked it out when he got stuck, as is normal. But then the defense would be recovering during the flight of the pass. Here the no-look and timing before the drive means the ball is already most of the way toward Brogdon before Derrick Rose even reacts.
Donte DiVincenzo has really struggled on offense in the preseason, but his defense impressed me in this game. Here’s a small example, as DiVincenzo sinks with the ball to cut off the passing angle and gets the steal:
This instinct is not typical for an NBA rookie.
The Bucks have done a really good job all game of helping off Minnesota’s non-shooters at the nail (the spot around the middle of the free throw line) like this, clogging up driving lanes:
In past seasons in Atlanta, Budenholzer had often played an aggressive style of pick-and-roll defense. The Bucks opened that way in their first preseason game, with big men up at the level of the screen. But mid-game they flipped and in this game they’ve consistently dropped way back from the screen.
They did a great job against Minnesota of playing that drop coverage, walling off the rim. That goaded the Minnesota guards into taking a ton of floaters.
But what’s also notable about this clip is Lopez. Watch how as soon as the shot is attempted, he looks immediately for the roller. He doesn’t follow the flight of the ball or go for the rebound. He just seals off Gorgui Dieng on the roll.
Like his brother, Brook Lopez has been one of the worst defensive rebounding big men in the league for his entire career — if you look at the box score. But his teams have been better on the defensive glass when he’s on the court, compared to his time on the bench, every single season. This kind of play explains why.
Two possessions later. Hey look, another floater! Jeff Teague makes this one, but this is a win for the defense. Teague shot 39% on short midrange shots last season, right around his career rates.
You just can’t relax for a second when Giannis is bringing the ball up. Here he has a full head of steam in transition for this pick-and-roll, and the Wolves, who had done a great job in the first half of getting in early and clogging the paint, are out just a little too far. With no extra defender to bother Giannis’ dribble, he can get just a little bit closer to the basket when he gathers. And when that happens, someone is ending up on a poster.
Once again, Lopez is dropped back, Teague takes a floater, Lopez backs away to seal off the roller. DiVincenzo does a great job of coming in from the foul line to snag this rebound, which isn’t something to take for granted with a guard.
Minnesota really struggled against that dropped pick-and-roll coverage. Here’s another floater, this one from Towns. But this play is more about Towns’ poor decision-making than anything else. Towns is a very good three-point shooter, and against the drop that’s a huge advantage because his man is so far off of him. But he doesn’t look for the shot and instead drives it right into the defense.
Khris Middleton has taken 30% of his shots from three and over 50% from midrange for four years running. That’s not ideal shot distribution. He’s been efficient because he’s such a good shooter from midrange and three that it works out. But this preseason, over half of his attempts have come from three, and if that is close to what it will look like in the regular season, he could have an incredibly efficient year with the shots he’s going to get. This play is one example.
It’s a pretty simple play. Most of Budenholzer’s sets start with A-to-B-to-C action: The ball comes down one side of the floor, in possession of player “A,” he passes to the trailing big man, “B,” who swings it to the opposite side of the floor, “C.” In this case, it looks like that setup, but all of the sudden Middleton (“C”) sprints to the top of the key and gets the screen from “B” (Ilyasova).
Josh Okogie is playing in a reasonable spot defensively,1 but Rose should have been playing higher and switched out here. Without that help, Middleton has a wide-open look.
The Bucks ranked 25th in three-point frequency last year and 22nd in three-point percentage. So it’s easy to forget that Middelton, Brogdon and Tony Snell are all very good shooters. Middleton hit over 40% of his threes on high volume for four straight seasons until last year’s dip, Brogdon has hit 40% on 300+ career attempts, and Snell has made over 40% each of the past two seasons. Budenholzer’s offense can get them a lot of easy looks like this.
Here’s the same setup, but this time Gibson is guarding Ilyasova. Watch how he picks up Ilyasova very high on the floor, putting Gibson in position to deny that pass to “B” or to jump out and switch if Ilyasova screens.
The Bucks have been really intent all game at loading to the nail spot. That discipline can gum up an opposing offense and help keep the ball out of the paint — but it’s also going to give up these kinds of threes.
Budenhozler’s Atlanta teams were really good on defense despite allowing a lot of threes, in part because they shut off the rim and didn’t foul, which this kind of positioning helps. But they also were good because they forced a ton of turnovers. The personnel on this Milwaukee team and the style are slightly different, and they didn’t force many turnovers in the preseason. That will be something to watch as we evaluate the potential of this Bucks team. If they don’t force a high rate of turnovers, will their shot defense and defensive rebounding be good enough to compsensate?
Of course their defense will be fine if they keep coaxing opponents into these shots.
Oh look, another floater.
- An argument could be made that he should have had a higher pickup point with the A-to-B-to-C action, but that’s not really what compromises the play in my view. ↩