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The Spurs welcome the Greek Freak, Coach Bud, and the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks to the AT&T Center.
The Milwaukee Bucks have toiled in irrelevancy for years since the early 2000s when they featured Ray Allen, and they haven’t appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals since 2001. The drafting of Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 may have put them on the map, but it was the hiring of Mike Budenholzer that has given them direction.
The Bucks of Giannis and Bud come into San Antonio with the #1 ranked defense and the #4 ranked offense, both massive improvements from their respective ranks of 19th and 9th from last season. That jump on defense is the most impressive and is a huge reason why the Bucks are the best team in the NBA right now and are a favorite to come out of the East, but the offense has also proven to be more creative under Bud than it was at anytime under Jason Kidd.
The Spurs have their work cut out for them if they want to get their 5th straight win and maintain playoff positioning.
The Bucks have length everywhere on the court. Khris Middleton (6’11” wingspan), Antetokounmpo (7’3”), and Malcolm Brogdon (6’11”) are all key cogs in their starting lineup alongside Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez. While these two guys have been known as somewhat lesser defenders throughout their careers, that length out there helps to cover up for a lot of deficiencies in their games on that end of the floor. Having Lopez out there has done wonders for their offense too, as he has transformed himself into an effective 3-point shooter and helps to space the floor for Antetokounmpo drives to the hoop.
For an idea of how tenacious this defense, just look at how they attacked Denver back in November:
The Spurs of course have already felt this pressure from Milwaukee. Back in November, San Antonio fell on the road to them 134-129, even though they held the lead for most of the game. The Spurs did put up 129 points that night, but most of their shots came at the expense of physical punishment and putting themselves through extreme discomfort.
Early in the 1st quarter of that game, the Spurs used a Flex cut to get DeMar DeRozan the ball on the left block. Malcolm Brogdon hounds him through the screen and stays stuck to his hip the entire time. DeRozan finds a bit of room to make the layup, even with Brogdon on his hip, Brook Lopez coming over to contest, and Antetokounmpo lurking behind Lopez:
The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of and watch this Bucks defense is, “physicality.” If these guys played for Pop, he’d be eternally pleased with their aggressiveness and activity on the defensive end of the floor. They literally make life hell for opposing players. Here DeRozan gets into the paint looking to take a floater. Before he knows it, 4 Bucks pounce on him as though he’s an over-matched hunter, with Lopez blocking the shot:
He gets the ball back and finds Bryn Forbes for an open 3-pointer, but nothing about this possession was easy.
With all that length and aggressiveness, you’d think Milwaukee would be a top team in the league at forcing turnovers. Imagine my shock upon discovering that they rank just 23rd in Opponent’s Turnovers Per Game and are a mediocre 25th in steals per game (7.0). However, they’re more than capable of getting their hands on some passes, especially bad ones like this:
The Spurs actually shot a great percentage against Milwaukee in that loss, shooting 53% overall as a team and 48% from beyond the arc, on the road no less. However, there are clear problems that this Bucks defense presents and if they come in lackadaisical, it could be a long night for San Antonio.
For a long time, LeBron James was the scariest player in the NBA. He was a physical force on the court, ready to wreck havoc against your team with his power. You loved to beat him, but you were a bit nervous every time he came to your team’s town. Then it became Stephen Curry, who would run your best defender through a maze of screens, pull him out on the perimeter, dance with him, and then either drive by and get into the paint for an easy layup or hit a 3 right in his face.
The successor to this group is without doubt Antetokounmpo. He’s probably the closest we’ve gotten to a legit superhero on the perimeter since Michael Jordan retired in 1998, able to swoop in over the tops of defenders, get up from the half court line to the rim with a single dribble, and launch with power and precision from anywhere within the paint for dunk that leaves opponents wary. Watch the anticipation, power and authority with which he uses to steal this weak pass and hammer it home with some feeling:
In the half-court, he’s capable of breaking down his man with a few hesitation dribbles and creating a look for himself at the rim, like he does here in transition:
Bud has done a great job of utilizing him as a roller and a cutter as well. Here, he was initially coming to set a screen for Matthew Dellavedova in the corner, but took advantage of a wide open lane for one of his league-leading dunks:
The absolute best thing the Spurs can do defensively is try to keep him out on the perimeter and not overreact to his drives. He’s shooting an awful 24% on just 150 attempts for the season from beyond the arc, effectively classifying him as a complete non-threat from outside. In that first game against the Spurs, he took only 3 shots outside of 10 feet from the basket, missing all of them and still finishing with 34 points.
The 8 assists he dished out led to six 3-point makes, many of them in the short corners, which we know Budenholzer is very fond of from his days in San Antonio and Atlanta. While they don’t make a great percentage of their 3s (35%, good for 17th), the Bucks are second in both makes and attempts per game behind the arc, with Giannis generating a lot of them.
The Spurs collapsing on him created multiple great looks, like this one from Tony Snell:
And here, where he collapses the defense as a roller, opening up Middleton:
What you’re seeing here is exactly how LeBron offenses have worked for years. Teams often play Antetokounmpo for the jumper because of how poorly he shoots from outside, he forces his way into the paint because he’s bigger and stronger than everyone, and then is surrounded by players who are capable of shooting the 3 ball. At 6’11” not only does he have a better view of what is going on around him than a traditional point, but he has shown himself to be a very capable and willing passer, as is on display in both clips above.
Guys like Curry use their gravity to pull defenses OUT to them. What guys like Giannis and LeBron do is intended to suck the defense IN. By the time Giannis gets to the right elbow in the first clip above, he has the eyes and bodies of all 5 Spurs on the court coming towards him giving him multiple options, with Snell being the most wide-open.
Guarding the Greek Freak needs to be a team effort, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of leaving better 3-point shooters wide-open. Rudy Gay drew the initial assignment back in November, but with him being questionable with an illness, it’s anyone’s guess who will be tasked with guarding my pick for NBA Most Valuable Player.
Though he’s undersized, maybe Derrick White could hound him and force him into some jumpers?
Pau Gasol will make his return to the AT&T Center a little more than a week after agreeing to a buy-out with the Spurs. Much maligned for his 2nd contract while here, he was nonetheless a professional the entirety of his time, regardless of what some fans may have had to say regarding his comments on playing time. The man clearly thinks that he can still give something to a team, and I think its inspirational that someone is still trying to play the game they love at an age where the game has passed most guys completely by.
I hope he hears applause tonight!
Vegas Line: Bucks by 3
Prediction: Bucks by 3
For the visitor’s perspective, check out Brew Hoop.
PtR’s Gamethread will be up this afternoon for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.
Source: Pounding The Rock