There is a play in the Bucks vs. Lakers game from March 6th that captures something fundamental about how Milwaukee plays on offense. The play begins with 7:03 left in the 4th quarter, after Giannis snatches the rebound from a missed Anthony Davis jumper. The Bucks are down 8, trying to bridge a gap created by a dominant 3rd quarter performance by LA.
Giannis takes the ball and, with his typical long strides, pushes up the court in a hurry. His teammates are sprinting into place beside him, fanning out for the spaces beyond the 3-point line. The Lakers’ defense is back and ready; Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso, and Danny Green stand guard at the top of the arc eyeing their opponent warily.
Giannis suddenly takes a hard dribble at his man, Morris, and Morris backpedals frantically. Green and Caruso pinch in towards the ball handler; they don’t want the reigning MVP to drive uninhibited to the basket. Giannis stops, pivots towards the left side of the court, and notices a trailing teammate, Donte DiVincenzo, left open by Green’s help. The bounce pass goes to DiVincenzo and Green sprints back towards his man. In rhythm, DiVincenzo scoops up the pass, steps into a 3-pointer, and drills the shot over the outstretched arms of the flailing Green. There were 17 seconds left on the shot clock when 3 was taken.
I am not exactly sure why this particular play stands out in a game filled with sensational moves by players on both sides of the two most dominant regular season teams, but it does. It captures a lot of the spirit of Milwaukee’s attack.
Bucks On Offense
I decided to go back and re-watch the Bucks vs. Lakers game from March 6th carefully. I wanted to see what I could glean from slowing down the game and deliberately writing down what I saw. I recorded notes on each possession in a spreadsheet (here). The point of this exercise for me was very much in the spirit of something Ben Falk, former VP of Basketball Strategy with the Sixers and Basketball Analytics Manager with the Blazers, said on a podcast with Ben Taylor last October. “You really want to start with watching the game, asking questions about the game itself, and then figure out how to measure it”. I am not an experienced NBA film watcher; my background is in statistics and data science. I want to gain a better understanding of what is happening on the court in order to more effectively analyze the game.
So, going back to the Bucks’ 4th quarter possession, why did I remember this play? Well, it captures a couple of important things about Milwaukee. The havoc created by Giannis, particularly in the open court with a head of steam, creates openings in their attack. It did on this play as two defenders felt the need to help off their man to contain Antetekounmpo. The play also is an illustration of something you notice very quickly when you watch the Bucks. Their role players have no qualms about letting shots fly, particularly 3-pointers, early in the possession. DiVincenzo had no second thoughts about taking the pass from Giannis, stepping into the shot, and firing.
Milwaukee had the highest pace in the NBA this season, a whopping 105 possessions per 48 minutes per basketball-reference, a full 1 possession more than 2nd place New Orleans. It is plays like this one that propel you to such a breakneck pace.
Many of the Bucks’ quick possessions begin with Giannis pushing the ball up the court in what felt to me like ‘semi-transition’. It was not like the Lakers weren’t back on defense; defenders were often back down the court and even gearing up waiting for the Antetekounmpo drive. But, nevertheless, Giannis still created so much pressure with his long, bounding strides, that the Laker defense was forced to bend toward this threat. Indeed, in the 1st quarter, Los Angeles tried to stop Giannis’s drive with just one defender (often AD if I remember correctly) and was badly beaten on play after play. Giannis was able to side-step his man, get into the paint, and make the shot or get fouled.
Here is one example of Antetekounmpo attacking the basket early in the possession against a waiting Anthony Davis:
This failure to guard the Greek forward early caused the Lakers to adapt; in the 3rd quarter especially it became apparent that two or three defenders would meet Giannis as he tried to push the ball into the teeth of the defense.
Interestingly, it was not just Giannis who had the green light to initiate early in a possession. I noted plays where Eric Bledsoe would take the ball early in the shot clock and, after one or no passes, try to take his man off the dribble. Khris Middleton also attacked the defense early before any set action was run. The Bucks really emphasized their players attacking quickly.
This inclination to not be afraid to shoot early in the shot clock is backed up in the data. Milwaukee was second in proportion of shot attempts taken with 18-22 seconds left on the shot clock and third in proportion of shot attempts taken with 15-18 seconds left on the shot clock (per NBA.com).
Here is one example. Bledsoe has the green light to drive early in the possession, before any real action is run.
Lakers On Offense
Ok, so what happened when the Lakers were on offense? Well, I wrote down and remembered a bunch of LeBron pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. This makes sense. After all, if you employ one of the best pick-and-roll ball handlers in league history you definitely want to use this to your advantage. Often Anthony Davis was the screener. Sometimes JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard set the ball screen. Sometimes a smaller player like Danny Green set the pick. The Lakers went to this a lot.
I also noticed a bunch of deliberate sets to get Anthony Davis the ball in a spot where he could cause some damage. At least three times JaVale McGee went down and set a pindown screen on Davis’s man near the lower block area with the hopes of freeing Davis to run up and get the ball around the free throw line area. AD would get the ball in this area a few times. The Lakers also would, on occasion, clear out a side of the floor for a Davis post-up against Brook Lopez, Giannis, or another defender. These plays were sometimes effective, sometimes not.
Here is an example. Davis takes a free throw line jump shot after coming free off of a McGee pindown:
In my memory of the game, Davis scored a lot but needed a bunch of shooting possessions, including probably a few too many midrange jump shots, to get his points. Looking at the box score, Davis wound up with 30 points on 10 of 24 shooting from the floor, but also made 10 of 11 free throws.
Another thing I noticed about the Lakers’ offense was just how good LeBon was at quickly passing the ball ahead in transition. When the defense wasn’t quite ready to guard shooters like Danny Green and Avery Bradley on the perimeter, James would find them. These quick passes ahead would occasionally create decent offense out of virtually nothing.
While we are talking about LeBron (he did have an awesome game), I also noticed that he started more aggressively seeking post-ups off of back-downs, particularly in the 3rd quarter. A couple of times, LeBron simply used his strength to muscle his way to the basket, often with Giannis guarding him. Other times, he would turn around and hit a fadeaway jumper, a shot that Milwaukee could probably live with.
Other random nuggets
There were a bunch of other, small things that I noticed from closely watching the game that I will list here. Some of these observations may simply be flukes of the particular game, with no bearing on future match-ups.
- There was a play Milwaukee ran with about 8:20 left in the 3rd quarter that I liked. Giannis handed the ball off to Bledsoe in a DHO on the left side of the court and then proceeded to run off of two screens (one by Matthews and one by Middleton) to all the way on the right block where he received the entry pass. He was now matched up against Danny Green, who had been forced to switch onto him. Giannis was then fouled trying to spin baseline.
- As I touched on earlier, Eric Bledsoe was aggressive driving to the basket and had a couple nice finishes, but also committed at least one turnover on an attempted drive. He finished the game 5 of 13 from the floor for 11 points.
- Giannis as a roll man in the pick-and-roll is pretty scary for the defense. He can drive or kick out to shooters after he gets the pass.
- Every time I see Brook Lopez take a quick catch-and-shoot 3, it is still somewhat jarring. He was effective here though; he finished 3 of 4 on 3-pointers.
- The Lakers had a few nice steals and looked dangerous in transition . They were 5th in the NBA this season in forced turnover rate, per basketball-reference.
- Rajon Rondo actually drove to the basket to score a couple of times when he was being guarded by Kyle Korver, perhaps believing Korver was not quick enough to guard him on the perimeter.
- The Lakers set a few ball screens on AD’s defender using a smaller player as the screener, allowing an easier Davis path to the basket. These plays (if I remember correctly) were at least somewhat effective.
- Do not miscommunicate in transition when LeBron has the ball. There was a play with about 9:40 remaining in the 3rd quarter where James threw a surprisingly quick alley-oop to Davis. If you look back, you see that Middleton thinks he is passing AD off to someone else (probably Brook Lopez), and AD takes advantage of the confusion to run straight to the rim.
- Looking at the Four Factors from the box score, I see that Milwaukee had the higher effective field goal percentage but the Lakers pretty handily won each of the other three Factors. In particular, LA had a really high 0.341 FT/FGA. Thinking back, this agrees with my assessment from watching.
I hope you enjoyed this post and am happy for any feedback! I want to keep learning more about how to dissect the subtleties of what goes on on the NBA court.