From Splash Mountain to their prized trade deadline acquisition, the Milwaukee Bucks are an offensive dynamo because of their shooting frontcourt.
Since joining the Bucks in February, Nikola Mirotic has taken 64.4 percent of his attempts from three, hitting 35.6 percent. Brook Lopez launches 65.1 percent of his shots from deep and gets 36.5 percent of them. 42 percent of Ersan Ilyasova’s field goal attempts are treys, and he’s above 36 percent as well. That trifecta is a nightmare matchup for teams that want to sag into the paint and blanket Giannis Antetokounmpo on drives.
All three of these guys play what’s traditionally known as the center position for the Bucks, the NBA’s new most difficult team to defend.
Make no mistake, the Bucks roster was not built this way on accident. Their inverted style of shooting bigs with slashing guards has allowed Giannis to rise to MVP levels this season. The creativity of first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer has shined through his unique actions around stretch posts. Milwaukee posted the league’s top record and highest scoring offense during the regular season before torching the Detroit Pistons during their first-round series while averaging 121.7 points per game.
MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is certainly the main impetus behind their offensive attack. He’s such a difficult cover due to his combination of length, athleticism and skill.
In the past, teams found ways to negate that prowess in the postseason by throwing elite defensive guards at him, undercutting his dribble and forcing him to play one-on-one in the post with cramped spacing. Former frontcourt partners like John Henson, Jabari Parker and Thon Maker were not consistent perimeter threats that opened space for Giannis to exploit his size advantage. The Bucks’ half-courts actions were slow, plodding and elbow-based, with one action at a time and little off-ball movement.
Enter Budenholzer, a former 60-game winner with the Atlanta Hawks and a Gregg Popovich disciple renowned for his offensive aptitude. Yet, as important as the coaching change and systematic overhaul has been to their success, none of it would be possible if general manager Jon Horst did not make three simple acquisitions this winter:
Snatching Brook Lopez, a starting-caliber center, for the veteran’s minimum was an absolute coup; Getting Ilyasova for the Mid-Level Exception helped pry him away from a similar role with the Philadelphia 76ers, a place he was clearly coveted during the postseason a year ago; Finally, cashing out four future second-round selections and Thon Maker for Mirotic’s stretch shooting and threat to put it on the deck.
Now the offense is fully inverted, with slashers like Giannis and Eric Bledsoe handling the ball and shooters standing above 6’10” on the perimeter.
Most defenses have no choice but to match up with Milwaukee in the standard defensive style: by height. Big guys guard bigs, smaller guys guard small, and they’ll figure out the screen coverages based on stylistic tendencies. When Lopez lumbers to the perimeter, rim protecting centers will follow, leaving the basket unguarded by size and susceptible to easier finishes. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks had the third-highest field goal percentage at the rim this season.
In their series against the Pistons, that value was as demonstrable as ever. Lopez would park himself behind the three-point line, pulling Andre Drummond with him. The lanky and effective Bucks guards would blow by their man, worry-free about a weak-side shot blocker pinning them on the glass:
That same shooting strength is what allows the Bucks to force a switch where Giannis can feast on opposing point guards.
His size advantage has led to frequent wonky pick-and-rolls, where a ball-handling Giannis comes off a screen from Bledsoe. As defenses try to navigate in order to avoid switching, there’s a distinct lack of bodies cluttering the lane and forcing Antetokounmpo to kick. As guys like Lopez and Ilyasova stand in the corner, opposing bigs are too scared to commit to Giannis.
He’s such a good passer that he’d find their man and get a corner three. So they stay home, and Giannis worms through defenses to get whatever he wants.
Detroit’s helpers literally just stood and watched Antetokounmpo tear them up in Game 4 on this exact action:
And those stretchy Bucks bigs are good from anywhere. They trail plays and hit knock-down bombs in transition. Lopez shot a tad below 40 percent from the corner three, an area where Ilyasova is a career 39.3 percent shooter as well. That versatility prevents defenses from strategically ignoring them on certain plays.
The Brook Lopez reinvention has been one of the most radical evolutions of skill development in recent memory. Prior to the All-Star break, he was among the league leaders in three-point percentage, shooting 37.2 percent on a high volume. But he’s not just a standstill sniper. Lopez’ ability to score on the move, both as a shooter and a driver against other bigs, has been the demoralizing blow to defenses that try to crowd him:
Mirotic is also effective at using screens and is super mobile for his size. Milwaukee runs him off staggers, flare screens and single down screens. They use him as a screener and then twirl him off a re-screen to get him free. He’s good at any spot on the floor, and as recently as a year ago was an effective starter for the Chicago Bulls.
To bring a threat like this off their bench for limited minutes each night is a scary thought:
And then there’s Ilyasova, who isn’t the driving threat the other two are, but who is a willing post-up option with just enough moves to make mismatches pay the price.
Budenholzer has not been shy about dialing up frequent and insane screening actions revolving around his bigs. Counters to sets they have in their playbook, screen-the-screener actions, you name it; The Bucks playbook is as deep as Lake Michigan.
How about this counter to a frequent ball screen set against the Chicago Bulls? Notice how many screens, both on-ball and off-ball, are mandated. It’s nearly impossible for the Bulls to keep up, especially when Brook is bodying his brother with a sweet isolation move:
My head hurts from trying to count all those screens.
So how do you stop a team who is built so uniquely and thwarts most any rim protection scheme?
One tactic that only a few teams have the personnel to try is to put wings on these shooters and use the big man to guard Giannis. The idea here is simple: the big won’t have to guard the perimeter since Giannis isn’t a true shooting threat (yet), and by daring the Bucks to play through their frontcourt in the post, it takes away opportunities for Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Bledsoe to be primary creators.
Perhaps the Boston Celtics have the right mold for this course. During their first-round sweep, the Celtics trotted out lineups featuring both Al Horford and Aron Baynes as a means of matching the Indiana Pacers’ two-big lineups. Now the Celtics can switch their strategy, sticking Horford at the 5 and as the primary defender on Giannis. Guys like Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris get to take away the stretch bigs, staying with them as they pop or adequately switching onto Giannis in late-clock ball screens.
This would make Giannis go one-on-one with Horford, putting the onus on his shoulders to score enough points to win.
Except, that ignores the fact that Lopez is a true seven-footer. Stick a guard on him through a poorly-timed switch and he’ll get on the offensive glass, keeping possessions alive for the Bucks to feast on and find early points:
If the strategy of guarding Antetokounmpo with a center is successful, the Bucks’ obvious counter is to go smaller. With Giannis at the 4, that forces the Celtics to limit the minutes Baynes and Horford can play together. Without Marcus Smart, Boston’s backcourt depth is suspect, and that could be a path for the Bucks to force their hand.
But wouldn’t that just take away Milwaukee’s strength? Not exactly.
The Bucks have been using Ilyasova, Lopez and Mirotic as their stretch-5s against the Pistons and down the regular-season stretch. That should continue against Boston. Their backcourt and wing depth provides just as much shooting and still creates the inside-outside dilemma for their opponent.
There really is no blueprint for how to stop their frontcourt shooting, though Boston may have the best shot at finding something, anything.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of April 22, 2019
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.