The Bucks’ defense wasn’t the problem against the Celtics.
It has been a long time since many of us have really thought about the Milwaukee Bucks. As the NBA playoffs march forward and the two Eastern Conference finalists hurl their bodies into each other, the Bucks were relegated to the sidelines after a painful seven-game series loss to the Boston Celtics. Losing is bad enough. Losing because you were missing one of your best players is worse, and somehow worse than that is raking your team over the coals to figure out the root cause that led to the postseason failure.
Focusing on the defense when the offense is the problem?
Feels vaguely familiar…. https://t.co/T2ps4cxqlB
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) May 24, 2022
No offense, but Milwaukee’s problem was no offense. Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks had nothing going. The defense was not the problem, and analyzing the opposing team’s performance relative to their season averages reveals that truth.
This collection of stats comes straight from NBA.com, and simply compares the Celtics’ shooting performances from the regular season to the second round of the playoffs. There are a few common themes in the data, most of which should be familiar to Bucks fans who have been on the bandwagon since Mike Budenholzer joined the franchise.
Overall, the Celtics were a productive offense during the 2021-22 season, posting an offensive rating of 113.6. That number fell all the way to 108.8 (nearly five points) against the Bucks. As you’d expect, the Bucks stymied Boston’s offense the way they usually do: put a damper on the other team’s overall field goal percentage by forcing shots away from the rim. And overall, it worked; Boston shot over three percentage points worse overall in the conference semifinals. For reference, the Celtics’ ranked 15th in the regular season (46.6% from the field), and their second round mark (43.4%) would have ranked 27th, tied with the Orlando Magic. Needless to say, the Boston offense was significantly restrained.
Nowhere is this difference more stark than when looking at Milwaukee’s performance defending shots taken in the restricted area. Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo each earn a ton of credit for keeping the ball away from the basket, but the Bucks’ efforts to control basketball’s most valuable airspace is team-wide. Boston, admittedly, has historically been able to produce on offense without relying on getting shots at the rim, and they only took 27.5% of their attempts in that area during the regular season (converting 69.6% of those shots). In the conference semifinals, though, those figures cratered all the way down to 21.6% (nearly six points lower) and 62.5% (over seven points lower!) respectively.
“Well, obviously,” some Bucks fans might scoff, “the defense shut down the rim and gave up everything from deep!” And that might be true, considering that nearly half (330 out of 739) of Boston’s points were produced by three point shots. But the data doesn’t necessarily support such a conclusion; despite drastically increasing their three-point volume (3PAr of 0.425 to 0.493, nearly a seven-point spike), the Celtics only shot two points better on threes than they had all year (improving from 35.6% to 37.7%). And despite the narrative that travelled across Bucks Twitter, it’s not like Milwaukee got burned from the corners; over three-quarters of Boston’s three-pointers (77.7%, in fact) were above the break!
But alas, the playoffs are a series of small sample sizes, and therefore are more prone to small differences that lead to larger swings based on the timelines available. In a nineteen-game series, maybe the Bucks would have been able to beat Boston even without Khris Middleton, but they didn’t have 19 chances. Across seven games, the Bucks dared Boston’s shooters to make enough shots to keep their offense afloat…and for all intents and purposes that’s what happened.
Based on their 2021-22 performance, the Celtics had two significant threats from long range: Peyton Pritchard and Grant Williams, each of whom broke the 40% mark. The Bucks were able to limit attempts from those two across the whole series to less than a quarter of Boston’s overall three point attempts…but the Celtics attempted so many threes that these two shooters got plenty of attempts anyways. But overall, Milwaukee’s defense funneled plenty of three-point shots (74% of them) to players that you’re more comfortable taking a high volume of threes, because overall they’re not expected to make a high rate of them. Jayson Tatum (35.3%), Jaylen Brown (35.8%), Al Horford (33.6%), Marcus Smart (33.1%), and Derrick White (30.6%) are not a terrifying lineup of shooters…but in a seven-game series, it’s not impossible for four of them to perform a level (or two) above what would otherwise be expected. And that’s exactly what happened; Tatum (+1.8), Brown (+8.0), Horford (+5.3) and Smart (+6.3) all shot a significant number of percentage points higher than they had in the regular season.
Let it be said, Boston deserves a ton of credit for how they approached the Bucks in this series. They worked with what looks Milwaukee conceded and hit enough (more than enough, really) of them to short-circuit the structural advantages the Bucks had built for themselves. But even with that level of improved offensive production, the Celtics still needed to go seven games, with home court advantage, against the defending champs in order to advance. Boston got hot shooting exactly when they needed it, from nearly everybody, and it was barely enough.
That’s why any discussion about the Bucks’ failure this postseason has to be centered on the offense, which even still is largely impacted by the absence of Khris Middleton. But the defense was there, the gameplan was sound. Boston was able to score, but not as easily as it may appear and certainly not as frequently as they expected. Had the Bucks been able to keep up on offense, even with the vaunted Boston defense making their life difficult, the story of this series would have ended very differently.
But it didn’t. So now the offseason starts, and the team has to look in the mirror to figure out what to do differently. Hopefully any major changes are made on the other side of the ball, because the defense was not the problem this time around.