The Milwaukee Bucks are big favorites to get out of the Eastern Conference. According to Caesars Sportsbook, they enter the bubble at less than 230 to reach the NBA Finals in October.
Still, respect for Vegas is one thing, but execution in Orlando is another. While the Bucks have the best record in the league, the reigning MVP and the highest defense, these guys are winners. Ask the world champion Toronto Raptors, who knocked them out last year with a simple model that could be repeated this year.
With the Boston Celtics taking on the Bucks in each team’s reboot debut on Friday (18:30 ET on ESPN), here are the three rules any opponent must follow to bring down the apparent juggernaut in Milwaukee.
Rule 1: Keep Giannis away from the bucket
Giannis Antetokounmpo enters the bubble as the top scorer in league volume. He currently posts an effective field goal percentage (% eFG) of 58.3% this season, the highest score among the NBA’s top 50 scorers.
How do you do it? Dunks and dispositions: many. Just look at this:
More than almost any other modern superstar, Antetokounmpo dominates with an old-school shooting location. His impressive overall efficiency numbers derive from his world-class ability to attack and finish on the zipper. If you can keep it out of the paint, it’s deadly. If you can’t, it’s over.
Consider these two statistics:
This season, Antetokounmpo has attempted 727 shots in the paint and converted 66% of them. Of the 81 NBA players with at least 300 paint shots this season, he is the fifth most efficient.
He has also attempted 393 unpainted shots. Their percentage of eFG% in these attempts is only 43.6%. Of the 116 players with at least 300 unpainted shots, he ranks 109th in efficiency.
It’s basically Shaquille O’Neal in painting, but Andrew Wiggins out of it. Shaq won four dominant titles inside. If Milwaukee wins this year, it will be because no one could stifle Antetokounmpo’s indoor capacity. But when the Bucks bounced back last year, Toronto did just that.
During the 2018-19 regular season, Antetokounmpo led the league averaging 17.5 points per game. His dominance extended into the postseason as Milwaukee went 8-1 in the first two rounds. But after Toronto head coach Nick Nurse moved Kawhi Leonard to Giannis, the Raptors won four in a row by containing the NBA’s most dangerous inside goalie.
Last season of Milwaukee’s 10 wins last season, Giannis averaged 15.8 PPG versus 10.8 PPG in the five losses.
The good news for Bucks fans is that Leonard is in Los Angeles now. The bad news is that he and the rappers gave a roadmap to the League. If a team can figure out how to slow down Giannis ’inner role, history could repeat itself.
It may not be so fleshy. Here are two opponents in the second round who have already been successful.
At Philly Christmas, Giannis made just 6 of 15 paint shots while the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Bucks by 12. Brett Brown used a combination of Al Horford and Joel Embiid to defend Giannis and keep him away from the edge.
A few months later, Antetokounmpo got 5 of 10 paint shots while Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat kept Milwaukee at just 89 points in an impressive 16-point victory. (If there’s one defender in the East who should scare the Bucks, it’s Adebayo).
Milwaukee should still be favored to beat Miami or Philly in a seven-game series, but clashes are key in the playoffs. Both teams have already shown they could delay the MVP and get ready in the Milwaukee side pieces.
Rule 2: Make Middleton fish for you
Speaking of side options, Khris Middleton has been amazing this season. He has become a 50/40/90 type shooter, an NBA All-Star and of course a very rich man. He has the first year of a five-year, $ 178 million contract, because the Bucks believe he can be a difference maker when it matters most.
Middleton has become one of the most efficient volume shooters in the league. Just look at this:
But when the Bucks needed Middleton to thrive on the Toronto series last year, it went the other way. Milwaukee left the chance to go up 3-0 in a six-point loss in Game 3, with Middleton firing 3 for 16 and posting nine points in more than 44 minutes. Oof. Then, with the series tied 2-2 in Game 5 at home, Middleton did not respond, going 2 for 9 in 36 minutes. Once again, the Bucks lost by six. The rest is Canadian history.
Antetokounmpo has become a perennial candidate for the MVP, as he is the fiercest two-band player in the world. But his case is also helped at times by being seen alone in large games. He can easily seem much more valuable than any other player on his team. Middleton could definitely change that in the bubble, but you can bet that Bucks opponents will design their game plans to give it a try.
Rule 3: Do your three
At the other end of the field, Mike Budenholzer’s best-ranked defense centrally protects the edge, while daring opponents to beat them with jumpers. It’s an extreme dichotomy: no team in the league has conceded fewer points in the paint and no team has given up more than three points.
His defensive philosophy is based on the premise that not everything can be protected effectively. Given their large staff in front of the Lopez and Giannis twins, the Bucks can dominate rim protection and defensive glass, while spending less resources on watches at the edges.
No team has given up the 3 more open than the Bucks. Milwaukee has conceded 1,301 3-point attempts (7.6 per game) with the nearest defender at least six feet away, by tracking the Second Spectrum. While this is a risky game, it has generally worked well. The Bucks have been the league’s most efficient defense in each of Budenholzer’s two seasons. But when the shooters warm up, the Bucks ’defense can explode, which is what happened against the Raptors.
Go back to the final four games of those conference finals, when new father and popular Canadian hero Fred VanVleet caught fire and made 15 of his 25 3-point attempts. It’s wild.
While VanVleet is a good 3-point shooter, he’s not Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. Most NBA teams now have shooters capable of fire. All of Bucks ’major eastern rivals, Toronto, Boston and Miami, stand out from the city center. They all feature VanVleeting-capable snipers for a few games, punishing Milwaukee’s tendency to give up their downtown visits.
The following is an example of eastern punches and their 3-point open numbers:
The league is already full of fucks, but at the table, some teams have more guys who combine better with Milwaukee’s defense. Miami seems like a unique position to punish Milwaukee’s defensive approach, and that’s nothing more than hypothetical. Miami is 2-0 against Milwaukee this season partly because of Adebayo, and partly because their shooters have scored 42% of their three and have amassed 51 points per game from the center in those wins.
The point is, what happened before could happen again. Milwaukee deserves to be the favorite in the east, but the Bucks are by no means invincible. Just ask Fred VanVleet.