Recap: All Hail the King
Staples Centre was the centre of the basketball world as the Lakers defeated the formerly-on-pace-to-70-wins Bucks and then took revenge on the fully healthy Clippers becoming the first team to beat them in such circumstances. Extra encouraging when these victories happened while shooting a whopping 16 of 67 from deep. In the first instance, the great interior defense from the Lakers displayed the vulnerabilities of Milwaukee’s jump shooting - not unlike what the Heat did earlier in the week. Fuelled by quick offense and LeBron James entering Point God mode, an 18-0 run in the third quarter slaughtered the league’s best defense and anticipation about a potential Finals matchup grew.
The second win carried a bigger symbolic punch. The malaise the Clippers presented for most of the year has been contrasted with the invincibility of their squad when healthy and, while a game doesn’t destroy that ceiling, a scorching Avery Bradley and an inconsistent but impactful showing from Kuzma proves you can’t reduce the group to the Lebron and AD show. No title win can exist without those two dominating the post-season but Kawhi was doing a decent job on Davis and the most important Lakers run came while LeBron sat. Rondo still plays far too many minutes but the biggest eye-sore was Marcus Morris missing his 9 shot attempts. The ball-stopping into a tough shot routine is not a new feature but the fully actualized small lineup of the Clippers needs Morris being a great third (possibly fourth) option and this is not it. A team suffering of 2019 Warriors syndrome with none of the championship equity isn’t a promising omen.
After an “impressive showing”, Dion Waiters joins the Los Angeles Lakers for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the return of 2-time MVP Stephen Curry might give Warriors fans a reason to watch basketball again.
This week also saw the departure of Kenny Atkinson from the Brooklyn Nets. The reports of Irving and Durant’s lack of trust on Atkinson are already being published and the effects of these two superstars on locker room chemistry continues to be an inescapable conversation. Atkinson will surely return to the league after a fantastic job of player development during the meteoric rebirth of the Nets under Sean Marks.
Preview: An Eventful Thursday
On Thursday, Boston goes to Milwaukee and while the Bucks might not play their Greek freak, it could provide a measurement of how these teams matchup and what to make when two wings fighting for all-NBA consideration in Tatum and Middleton are the main focus on each offense. And after a statement win over the Lakers in the first game after trading Capela, the Rockets go to Staples for round two and the difference in size will still be an experiment worth watching. Will Westbrook retain the ability to get to the rim at will now the surprise effect is gone?
While the eight teams that will make it to the post-season in the East seem decided, the Philadelphia 76ers have been slipping in the standings. I’d imagine no team wants to deal with them in a first round series and with injuries pilling up, most importantly to the stars Embiid and Simmons, the three games this week are of the utmost importance to a bracket placement. In a moment of well-deserved cosmical luck, they are all home games and the team holds a comically good 28-2 record when playing on the Wells Fargo Center. It remains to be seen how much the depleted Sixers can hold the fortress.
In Focus: The Milwaukee Bucks Defense
A few years ago, propelled by the success of the Warriors, switching became the most frequently used defensive strategy by top NBA teams. But as the idea of this fully switchable teams full of wing-sized players is still the most talked about way to stop offenses, the Milwaukee Bucks have perfected a drop coverage scheme that’s likely the model of defences to come in this new landscape, possible only due to the incredible roster of well-coached, athletic and long players. And at the centre of all of this is the gigantic Brook Lopez.
With a defensive rating of 102.3 on CleaningtheGlass, they are in a island all their own but the Pick and Roll defense installed by Mike Budenholzer is simple almost to a fault: Eric Bledsoe has perfected getting through screens to breathe down the neck of ball handlers, George Hill’s arms are long enough to bother any other player that plays his position and these are their smallest players on the rotation. They will aggressively run players away from the line and direct them towards the 7-footer that will meet them in the paint.
This season, the Bucks allow the least amount of shots at the rim in the league while also holding opponents to the lowest percentage on these – merely 50.7% at time of writing, an incredible 7% points better than the 2nd placed Toronto Raptors. And Brook isn’t simply waiting for a player under the basket either: He takes enough steps forward to make sure he’s always able to cover passing lanes to rolling big and sill be able to make any driver to the basket think twice, and we are yet to mention the cleaner of the group. Whenever a player believes to have eluded Lopez, a freakishly long reining MVP that leads the league in defensive PIPM (and overall PIPM by an impossible margin) comes and sends all your hopes to the Shadow Realm along with your shot.
Swarming the paint has the consequence of opening the opportunities for kick-out passes to shooters but the Bucks are a modern defense by being smart and playing the math. They will rotate to good shooters and close out but will gladly allow a 3-point shot from the more challenged shooters. This ability to use the counting report in their favour creates the duality of maintaining their defensive prowess while allowing the most attempts from threes in the league.
However, doubts remain about how this will translate to the next stage and how effective can Brook’s role remain… A big man with the ability to pop for the three after setting the screen might force him out of the paint. Toronto is the most interesting team to try and exploit this with both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol able to fill the roll.
The Bucks should have another gear. Giannis is playing only 30 minutes per game and can be more often deployed as a centre in a smaller and faster lineup if necessity calls for it (95.9 DRTG when Giannis plays without any of the Lopez brothers or DJ Wilson). The addition of Marvin Williams gives them extra versatility. They should still clear the East if Eric Bledsoe doesn’t completely collapse though their job gets tougher should Jason Tatum truly be a top 12 player when a series between these two teams takes place.
But in short, more than almost any other team, the defense of the Bucks relies on exploiting weaker players and playing the numbers and that just gets harder as players get better when rotations shrink. This week gave us reason to be sceptical of the ceiling of their offense… The only way to a title is because the other team just won’t be able to score on them and they were beaten by the Lakers in a poor shooting night. By all metrics this team in Milwaukee is one of the most dominant regular season teams we have ever seen but Giannis will be the first to tell you: Legacies are made in the Playoffs.