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NBA Finals Game Two: Bucks vs Suns

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Let’s breakdown the adjustments Milwaukee can make to even the series

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Bucks at Suns -5.5 (220.5)

8:00pm CST

ABC

Phoenix took a 1-0 lead on Tuesday night, spearheaded by big nights from Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton. The Point God controlled every aspect of the game, and Ayton made his presence felt on the interior all night long. It was a complete game from the Suns, with the only real bummer being that old friend Dario Saric tore his ACL, and will miss the rest of the series.

It’s a big bummer for Saric, who had a really nice season in Phoenix, finding his niche as a stretch-5 with their second unit. The Suns are likely to double-down on this strategy by playing someone like Jae Crowder or Torrey Craig in this role, as opposed to Frank Kaminsky after his short, shaky four-minute stint in Game 1.

For Game 2, the big question dominating most discussion around the series is what Milwaukee chooses to do on defense against Phoenix’s pick-and-roll game.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, it feels important to note that for the past few years, many of us have been begging Bucks signal-caller Mike Budenholzer to incorporate more switching into his defensive schemes. It feels a tad ironic that now, on the biggest stage, the Bucks were switching and our collective response was, “not like that.”

I didn’t think the Brook Lopez switching was quite as bad as it looked visually, and the numbers sort of back this up.

The problem with this sentiment, though, is that the Bucks are over-helping because of how lost Lopez looks in isolation. Whether the actual shooting numbers from Paul and Devin Booker are good or bad, if the Bucks are going to be baited into helping, the Suns are going to get good looks. If Jrue Holiday feels like he needs to come give hard help at the nail, while guarding Chris Paul one pass away at the three-point line, the Bucks are in trouble. These are the problems a defense faces when the PnR is surrounded by three willing and capable shooters, spaced between the opposite wings and corners.

The basis of most switching schemes is to force teams into isolation basketball, just as the Suns went to on Tuesday. You can’t, however, help so aggressively that you end up giving up everything on defense. As Eric Nehm alluded to above, you can’t give up the isolation scoring and the kick-outs.

Of course, the other side of the coin asks what Booker and Paul’s shooting numbers look like if Milwaukee stops sending as much help to Brook on those switches. My guess is Booker would continue to get to the line frequently and Paul’s percentages would stagnate or rise a bit.

So what in the world do the Bucks do, then?

It would be foolish to suggest they should sit in the deep drop coverage that was their base during the regular season, but is there an in-between for them? It feels like all PnR analysis has devolved simply into drop vs. switching, when those are not the only coverages available.

I’m not sure you can hard hedge against Chris Paul without getting sent into rotation, but the main point still stands.

In many ways Tuesday night, the Bucks reminded me of the Clippers in Games 1 & 2 against the Mavericks with how willingly they switched actions that didn’t require a switch. Milwaukee does need to bring Brook Lopez up to the level of the screen, but why switch right away? Let Brook do his best to contain at the level while Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, or P.J. Tucker fight over the top of the screen. Lopez showed he could come up higher against Atlanta, let him try to do that again without giving up the soft switch so easily.

On any actions involving anyone other than Portis or Lopez, the Bucks should still be fine to switch, as their other defenders are switchy and interchangeable. Switch 1-4, bring Lopez to the level and don’t switch those actions unless you absolutely have to. Easier said than done, for sure, but it is Milwaukee’s best chance to slow Phoenix down, in my opinion.

Is this perfect?

Nope, and you might have to live with a couple pull-up threes from Booker and Paul at the exchange point between Lopez and the guards, but it feels like it might keep the Bucks out of rotation without completely leaving Lopez on an island. There isn’t a great answer for Phoenix’s sophisticated PnR game, which is why they’re in the NBA Finals and are currently a -350 favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. It might be the best out of several bad options, solely because it keeps them out of rotation without completely stranding Lopez.

While we’re on it, the Bucks simply do not have the option to sit Brook. If any big is going to be pulled from the rotation, it’ll be Bobby Portis, but the Bucks are already basically playing just seven guys. Giannis isn’t going to play 48 minutes, especially at center. Someone has to play, and Lopez has actually proven to be a bit more versatile than expected this postseason.

While Game 1 didn’t look pretty, and as we’ve covered — there aren’t really any great options to slow Phoenix’s attack — I think it would be foolish to count them out. If they find a way to take Game 2, they’ve stolen home court and have accomplished their goal for this set of games.

I think Milwaukee theoretically could accomplish this without changing their defensive scheme too much from Game 1 if they just revert back to their normal rate of fouling and get better play from Jrue, but the adjustments would still help.

The Bucks were the best team in the NBA all year at defending without fouling (18.8 opponent FTA/game), but uncharacteristically sent Phoenix to the line for 26 free-throw attempts in Game 1. On that same note, only Chicago scored a lower percentage of their points from the free-throw line during the regular season than Phoenix did (13.5%). That aspect of Game 1 feels like an anomaly, even if some of it can be explained by Lopez’s isolation defense.

Holiday, on the other hand, has been up-and-down all postseason, and Game 1 was a massive stinker. Maybe it’s just impossible for Milwaukee’s three best players to play well at the same time, but it would be a nice change to see them all firing at the same time.

I still think the Bucks can make this a long series, so I’ll take them in an ugly 103-101 thriller.