The Milwaukee Bucks are the big favorites to get out of the Eastern Conference. According to the Caesars Sportsbook book, they enter the bubble at minus-230 to reach the NBA Finals in October.
However, respect from Vegas is one thing, but execution in Orlando is another. While the Bucks hold the league best record, reigning MVP and top defense, these guys are beaten. Just ask world champion Toronto Raptors, who knocked them down last year with a simple plan that could be repeated again this year.
With the Boston Celtics taking over the Bucks in each team restoration debut on Friday (6:30 pm ET on ESPN), here are three rules every contender will have to follow to remove the apparent fraud in Milwaukee.
Rule 1: Keep Giannis away from the bucket
Giannis Antetokounmpo enters the bubble as the most effective volume scorer in the league. He is currently posting an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 58.3% this season, the highest such score among the NBA Top 50 scorers.
How does he do it? Dunks and formations – many of them. Just look at this:
More than almost any other modern superstar, Antetokounmpo dominates with an old school location. His impressive overall efficiency numbers stem from his worldwide ability to attack and finish on the shelf. If you can keep it out of the paint, it is deadly. If you can’t, it’s over.
Consider these two statistics:
This season, Antetokounmpo has tested 727 shots in ink and converted 66% of them. Of the 81 NBA players with at least 300 ink shots this season, he is the fifth most effective.
He also tested 393 colorless shots. His EFG% in these efforts is only 43.6%. Out of 116 players with at least 300 free kicks, he ranks 109th in efficiency.
He’s basically Shaquille O’Neal in the paint, but Andrew Wiggins out of it. Shaq won four titles dominating domestically. If Milwaukee wins one this year, it will happen because no one would be able to suppress Antetokounmpo’s inner ability. But when the Bucks took the stage last year, Toronto did just that.
During the regular 2018-19 season, Antetokounmpo led the league by averaging 17.5 points per game in paint. His dominance extends to the post-season, as Milwaukee went 8-1 in the first two rounds. But after Toronto coach Nick Nurse transferred Kawhi Leonard over Giannis, the Raptors won four straight, containing the NBA’s most dangerous goal scorer.
In Milwaukee’s 10 wins last season, Giannis averaged 15.8 PPG against 10.8 PPG in five losses.
The good news for Bucks fans is that Leonard is now in Los Angeles. The bad news is that he and Raps gave the league a guide. If a team can figure out how to slow down Giannis’s inner rotation, history can repeat itself.
It may not be so far-sighted. Two potential second-round opponents have found success here.
At Christmas in Philly, Giannis made just 6 of 15 shot shots while the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Bucks with 12. Brett Brown used a combination of Al Horford and Joel Embiid to protect Giannis and keep him away from the edge.
A few months later, Antetokounmpo made 5 out of 10 ink shots while Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat held Milwaukee to just 89 points in an impressive 16-point win. (If there’s one defender in the East that should scare the Bucks, it’s Adebayo).
Milwaukee still have to be favored to beat Miami or Philly in a seven-game series, but games are key in the playoffs. Both teams have already shown that they may be able to slow down the MVP and place most of Milwaukee’s secondary parts.
Rule 2: Make Middleton beat you
Speaking of secondary options, Khris Middleton has been incredible this season. He has become a 50/40/90 shooter, an NBA All-Star and, of course, a very rich man. He is in the first year of a 5-year, $ 178 million contract because Bucks believes he can be the creator of change when it matters most.
Middleton has become one of the most effective volume shooters in the league. Just look at this:
But when the Bucks needed Middleton to thrive in the Toronto series last year, he went the other way. Milwaukee gave up a chance to come out 3-0 in a six-point loss in Game 3, with Middleton scoring 3 for 16 and posting nine points in over 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. Again, the Bucks lost by six. The rest is Canadian history.
Antetokounmpo has become a perennial MVP candidate because he is the wildest two-way player on earth. But his case is also aided by sometimes looking only at the big games. He can easily look much more valuable than any other player on his team. Middleton may eventually change it to bubble, but you can bet the Bucks opponents will devise their game plans to make him try it.
Rule 3: Do your 3s
On the other side of the court, Mike Budenholzer’s high-defense defense defends his lip brilliantly at all costs while daring to beat opponents with bouncers. It’s an extreme dichotomy: No team in the league has given up less points on the paint, and no team has given up more than 3 scorers.
Their defensive philosophy is built on the premise that you can not defend everything effectively. Given their massive front-line personnel in twins Lopez and Giannis, the Bucks can dominate rhyme protection and protective glass while spending less resources on proximity to the edges.
No team has given up on the top 3 more open than the Bucks. Milwaukee has given up 1,301 3-point (7.6 per game) tests with the nearest defender at least six feet away, for the Second Spectrum chase. While it is a dangerous game to play, it has generally worked well. The Bucks have been the most efficient defenders in the league in each of Budenholzer’s two seasons. But when the shooters get hot, the Bucks defense can weaken, that’s what happened against the Kidnappers.
Back in the last four games of those conference finals, when young dad and popular Canadian hero Fred VanVleet came under fire and made 15 of his 25 3-point attempts. It is wild.
While VanVleet is a good 3-point shooter, it’s not Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. Most NBA teams now have firearms capable of catching fire. All of the Bucks’s main eastern rivals – Toronto, Boston and Miami – shine from downtown, and all of them feature VanVleeting-capable snipers for a few games, punishing Milwaukee’s tendency to give up juicy views from downtown city.
Here is an example of Eastern Sharpeners and their 3-point open numbers:
The league is now full of cheaters, but looking at that table, some teams have more boys matching better against Milwaukee defense. Miami seems uniquely positioned to punish Milwaukee’s defensive approach, and that’s more than just hypothetical. Miami is 2-0 against Milwaukee this season partly because of Adebayo, and partly because their shooters have made up 42% of their 3s and have accumulated 51 points per game from downtown in those wins.
The bottom line is that what happened before can happen again. Milwaukee deserves to be favorites in the East, but the Bucks are by no means invincible. Just ask Fred VanVleet.