NBA Playoffs: Why There’s No Scheming the Defending Champs
NBA

NBA Playoffs: Why There’s No Scheming the Defending Champs

In an article prior to the start of the postseason diagnosing potential pathways to slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo, I prefaced my prescription by stating that for any measures against him to be effective, the proper personnel is necessary. 

That was apparent during the 3:42 mark of the third quarter in Game 2 of the Milwaukee Bucks’ series against the Chicago Bulls when Antetokounmpo went into full-on Terminator mode to close the gap from 16 to three in less than three minutes. 

Though Chicago ultimately survived this blitzkrieg attack, the sequence previewed what was to come for the rest of the series. The fiery Bulls had the right scheme in place for beating the Bucks, but when you’re going against the best (even without Khris Middleton), scheme isn’t enough.

You need the right personnel, too.

Defense

On defense, the Bulls’ formula has yielded some positive results. In Game 1, behind a defensive masterclass from Alex Caruso, they held the league’s third-best offense to 93 points (in the year 2022). In Game 2, a ramp up in aggression even led to the unit emerging victorious. 

Coach Billy Donovan’s principles in this series have centered around doubling Giannis (and his co-stars) to keep the ball out of his hands, calculate his team’s rotations, and avoid letting Milwaukee establish any rhythm in the half court. 

Chicago has also been sending two players to the ball on ball screens and has attempted to stonewall Giannis’ attacks by forging the infamous “wall” in the paint.

Unfortunately, the Bulls lack the requisite size to put this philosophy into practice the way a team like Boston or Miami would be able to. 

  • First Clip: Antetokounmpo counters the help from the middle by spinning baseline (he’s skilled enough to facilitate at that angle).
  • Second Clip: This iteration of the wall doesn’t feature enough length and The Freak elongates himself to slip through the cracks. 
  • Third Clip: No one equipped to bang with him down low (although, Vucevic has tried).
  • Fourth Clip: The Bulls can’t disrupt his kick-outs or cover enough ground to kill the 3-pointer.

That last clip is especially important to this discussion. The teams that do the best job of defending Antetokounmpo use their size and length to meddle with his dribbles and interfere with his ability to identify the available pass.

So far, he’s having no trouble examining the battlefield against Chicago as he’s averaging the third-most potential assists in these playoffs and by far the most he’s averaged in a postseason.

giannis playoff potential assists
(via NBA.com)

The size issue also rears its ugly head when it comes time to collect a rebound. The Bucks are beating the Bulls on both the offensive glass (18.7% ORB to 16.7%) and the defensive glass (83.3% DRB to 81.3%).

A large part of this disparity is a product of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s decision to turn to a three-big lineup (Bobby Portis-Antetokounmpo-Brook Lopez) after Middleton went down.

The Bulls theoretically could combat Milwaukee by going to their resident bruiser Tristan Thompson. But his shortcomings on the other end have completely tanked their offense during his 31 minutes on the court (minus-43.3 net rating).

Which brings us to the second part…  

Offense

The Bulls won Game 2 in large part because of the herculean combination of the dribble penetration and tough shot-making DeMar DeRozan displayed. 

The analytically inclined Bucks will gladly live with the latter, but the increase in paint touches in Game 2 was something that needed to be corrected.

Outside of Game 2, Milwaukee has done a great job mitigating DeRozan’s drives to the rim and his trips to the free-throw line.

A lion’s share of the credit here goes to Jrue Holiday and Wesley Matthews for their excellent screen navigation. The backcourt tandem spent most of Games 3 and 4 fighting over screens and forcing DeRozan and Zach LaVine towards the sideline and away from the middle of the floor (otherwise known as ICE-ing the ball screen).

This coverage keeps the ball handler from the paint and forces the screener to make the defense pay for leaving them unattended.

Nikola Vucevic has had some solid moments in this series, but he’s not a strong enough roller (25th percentile) or deadly enough marksman (31.4% from 3) to force the Bucks to waver in their approach. And as a result, the Bucks have turned the 13th-best offense in the league into the worst playoff offense since the 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies (per NBA.com).

The supporting cast as a whole has struggled to make Milwaukee pay for its decision to hone in on the All-Star duo.

For instance, Grayson Allen has absolutely eviscerated Chicago on offense in the last two games. And in return, the Bulls have been unable to make him pay for his limitations as a man defender. Coby White (his primary matchup) has not only proven incapable of exploiting the Bucks’ defensive weak spot (3 for 12 against Allen), but he’s actually been getting picked on by the former Blue Devil (no, seriously, he literally took his lunch money!).

Overall, the Bulls can’t field a more capable defensive platoon without hemorrhaging value on offense. And they don’t have the shooting to punish Milwaukee for overloading on their superstars (25.9% on 3-pointers attempted by players other than LaVine). 

The Bulls have been a fun team and they put together a great scheme for dueling with the Bucks. But in the playoffs, a fun team with a great scheme will get sent home real fast if they don’t have the right personnel. 


Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.