As the Rockets fought through another nail-biting win over the Milwaukee Bucks to take their record in Orlando to 2-0, much was made of the defensive scheme that the Bucks equipped. The Rockets shot an NBA record 61 three-pointers, hitting 21 in the ultimate spectacle of make or miss basketball. Smart analysts such as Zach Lowe have discussed how some of the league's best defenses, such as Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee, concede a ton of 3's, but shut down the rim so effectively that it works out. However, giving up wide-open looks time and time again, to good shooters, is not a recipe for success. Indeed, the Rockets put up 120 points, with a 113.2 offensive rating - just a tick below their usual 2nd-ranked 113.6 average. And that was with James Harden shooting 3-12 from deep and 35.7% from the field. There was much debate on Rockets Twitter about whether Houston was falling into Milwaukee's trap, and every missed shot felt like agony. But the Rockets blasted through Milwaukee's defense time and time again, and in this blog post we will look at how they exploited what was at times a suicidal defensive gameplan.
I wanted to start out with a clip of how Milwaukee’s defense could work. The Bucks use a drop coverage scheme, meaning Brook Lopez is not going to come up to meet the screener, allowing the pick n roll to develop while staying at the rim. They know Harden is not going to pull up from midrange so the space you are conceding is less of a weakness than it might be ordinarily. This however, is a straight-line drive from Harden. Earlier in the season, this would be a Capela screen with Lopez sagging off Capela knowing he isn’t any sort of a threat for a pick n pop 3. Instead, facing 5-out means Lopez has to leave PJ in the corner to stay at the rim.
However, as the play unfolds look at Giannis on the strong side. He is zoning up in between PJ and Russ, so that he can closeout either one if Harden makes the pass out. This is how the Bucks should have defended Harden’s drives. It's a golden rule of NBA defense never to help off the strong side corner, but if they are determined to do so, at least keep Giannis there. He is so long he can almost block two passing lanes at once by himself.
On the next drive however, Houston adjusted their alignment. Rather than 2-2 it was 1-3. Now if Lopez wants to wait at the rim for the drive, he has to leave Tucker open in the corner, or the Bucks need to have another player on the strong side, leaving 3 against 2 on the weak side. They opted for the former, and from there it’s a really simple pass for Harden.
You can certainly see why the Bucks want Lopez at the rim at all times. He has anchored the NBA’s best defense two years in a row, and the Bucks have an absurd 99.6 defensive rating with him on the court. He keeps opponents to just 53.7% shooting at the restricted area, and he can do things like this.
My question is, why not have him start off on the weak side and rotate over to the rim when needed? This is what most teams, including the Rockets do. Watch below as Danuel House rotates over to help protect the rim on the drive. It leaves two shooters in the weak side open, but McLemore is well positioned between them and closes out on the corner shooter. House then rotates to cover the second shooter after the pass is made. This is textbook, solid defense.
I know the obvious retort here is to ask why anyone would suggest the league’s best defense take advice from a distinctly average overall defense in Houston. But just look at this. Do you know how easy this is for Jeff Green?
You give a guy that many wide open corner shots in the space of a minute and a half, and that’s just a shooting drill by this point. You will never convince me this is good defense. Take your 7-dimensional chess elsewhere.
The screencap below illustrates the issue perfectly. Harden is attacking downhill here as Covington took Wes Matthews out with the screen. In a more conventional defense, Marvin Williams would be closer to Jeff Green in the strong corner. Brook Lopez would be in the middle of the paint having rotated from the weak side after seeing Harden get past the on-ball defender. If I were Milwaukee, I would try Brook Lopez - who again, to stress, is one of the absolute best rim protectors in the league - alone to defend Harden. But if you wanted to send extra help, Middleton could come over, just like he has here.
This would leave George Hill covering McLemore and Rivers on the weak side. Yes you're outnumbered, but that's always going to happen if you want Lopez anchored to the rim. A pass to Green here is easier for Harden and doesn't allow the Bucks to closeout quickly enough. To hit the weak side shooters, the pass has to travel further and it would be going through, or over, more bodies ready to deflect the ball. If it did connect, let's say to McLemore in the corner, Hill could close out, and Middleton and Matthews could rotate to Rivers and Covington if the extra pass was made.
Helping off the strong corner is clearly a choice from the coaching staff, but the endless procession of open 3’s wasn’t just a matter of Milwaukee sticking to a pre-scripted gameplan. On this play the defense is positioned exactly how I just described. Lopez is protecting the rim, this time Giannis is on the strong side corner, and Williams slides over to help on Westbrook's drive. The last part though, is that the weak side defender has to be zoned up between the two shooters. Instead, Kyle Korver chooses to face guard Danuel House, and has no idea what Russ is doing on the drive. He hits McLemore in the corner for the open 3.
The Bucks made a lot of defensive mistakes. Especially in transition. There are multiple examples in the compilation below of a defense completely panicked by a one man drive, with three, sometimes four defenders all collapsing and leaving multiple shooters open.
The Bucks didn’t pick up trailing shooters on the break, and they didn’t make any rotations after the kick out to even try to closeout. The threat of James Harden or Russell Westbrook attack at the rim had the stingiest defense in the NBA scrambling again and again.
Look at how the defense collapses here. Four defenders collapse on Harden who manages to kick out. It’s not even a good pass, and Jeff Green’s secondary pass to McLemore on the wing isn’t great either. But it doesn’t matter when one person decides to close out and the other 4 defenders decide to hang around in the paint and watch to see what happens.
I’ll stress again – this is bad NBA defense. The Bucks haven’t managed a 101.8 defensive rating this season by simply not giving a damn about any perimeter player. This was lack of effort and co-ordination.
Please excuse the terrible broadcast angle here, but look at how the Bucks have both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Robin Lopez defending Russell Westbrook, as Jeff Green casually slides into the corner for the open 3.
Giannis is the favourite for this year’s DPOY award. And Robin Lopez has actually been a tougher big to score over than his brother Brook (who should also be getting all-NBA defense nods). Opponents shot just 51.2% within 5 feet of the basket on RoLo. Why does Milwaukee need two 7-footers in front of Westbrook? Russ shot 11 pull up middies last night. Even against single coverage, he wanted to do this every time.
The Bucks did not adjust their defense the entire game, and it didn’t even matter who the ball handler was. Austin Rivers attacks here and four defenders collapse into the paint as he drives.
Milwaukee's defensive blueprint thrives on forcing the opponent to take shots they don't want to take, and making role players step up. Nowhere does it say the entire defense needs to collapse because Austin Rivers wants to attack Robin Lopez at the rim. I'm not saying Milwaukee's defense this year has been a fluke, or a gimmick. They missed Eric Bledsoe last night, who is an elite perimeter defender, and funnelling players into Giannis, Lopez and Lopez at the rim cuts off easy baskets. They usually play to their strengths. But in this game they didn't. They blew rotations, they didn't get back in transition, and they made some bizarre positional errors that are easily rectified. If this were a seven-game series, variance would probably snap back and forth with Houston blowing hot and cold from deep. But in the end, they shot a less than average 34.4%, and still put up 120 points. Milwaukee has only given a worse defensive rating in a game ten times all season. The Rockets don't need knock-down shooting, they just need to hover around average if the Bucks defend like this.