The Milwaukee Bucks are the best defensive unit in the NBA for plenty of reasons.
They have the perfect combination of personnel to make it tough for all sorts of opponents. Defense starts at the point of attack, and the Bucks have plenty of point-of-attack hounds that can put an enormous amount of ball pressure to bother ball handlers, navigate screens to stay attached around picks, and the ability to lock and trail to close airspace quickly.
Having the kind of on-ball personnel they have — Jrue Holiday, arguably the premier point-of-attack defender in the NBA, and others such as Jevon Carter, George Hill, and Wes Matthews — has empowered the Bucks to deploy the deep drop as their base pick-and-roll coverage. Drop works only when you have the perfect combination of good on-ball defense and a drop big who knows how to navigate the middle ground between a ball handler and the roll man.
The Bucks happen to have the best drop-back big in Brook Lopez — the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. Lopez leads the league in blocks per game (2.9). Only Myles Turner (8.5) defends more shots at the rim than Lopez (7.7.), but Lopez has a commanding edge in opponent rim percentage (51.8%) over Turner (58.1%).
Add to the equation arguably one of the best help defenders in NBA history — if not the best (Draymond Green certainly has something to say about that) in Giannis Antetokounmpo — and the Golden State Warriors certainly had a mountain to climb going into their marquee matchup in Milwaukee.
A mountain that proved too high and insurmountable for them to overcome.
To illustrate how much trouble the Warriors had in terms of trying to get efficient looks at the rim — they shot 12-of-22 at the rim, good for 54.5% and slotting them within the 11th percentile — here’s a possession during the early stages of the third quarter that perfectly captures their struggles:
First thing that must be pointed out was the incredible amount of ball pressure Carter applied on Steph Curry. Without Holiday, the Bucks defended Curry by committee — Matthews spent time defending Curry, with Carter exchanging duties. Both of them did a commendable job.
But the rest of the possession is the meat and potatoes of what makes the Bucks so tough to score against. The Warriors flow into handoff action between Green and Klay Thompson, with Antetokounmpo going up to the level of the screen against Thompson, who counters with a pocket pass to Green.
This is where Lopez’s ingenuity as a rim protector comes into play.
Lopez plays both the potential dump-off to Kevon Looney, while also keeping tabs on Green. He waits to make sure Green commits to the layup before going up and blocking the shot. Such sublime decision-making, real-time processing, and uncanny timing is what has made Lopez into the league’s premier rim protector.
Take note also of Carter and Grayson Allen staying home on Curry and Jordan Poole, respectively. This further limits Green’s options on the short roll, leaving him no choice but to go up for the layup himself. This is illustrative of the Bucks and their efforts to limit opponents’ looks from outside as much as possible — they allow the fifth-lowest opponent three-point rate in the league, a far cry from their previous four seasons where they ranked no higher than 26th.
Combined with the Bucks allowing the fourth-lowest opponent rim rate in the league, their defensive shot profile has been among the best in the league. Their defensive location eFG% — a measure of how well a team limits opponents from getting the most efficient looks (i.e., layups and threes) on the floor — of 53.4% is fourth best, per Cleaning the Glass.
They allow the third-highest amount of mid-range looks from opponents, which states their preference for giving up the mid-range in an effort to limit rim attempts and three-point shots. Nothing was perhaps more illustrative of this philosophy than on this possession against the Warriors:
Again, Carter’s ball pressure on Curry must be commended. Looney “zipper” cuts and receives the ball up top in a 5-out “Delay” configuration (a big handling the ball up top to initiate action). Looney flows into “Chicago” action (a pindown flowing into a DHO), with Poole receiving the handoff.
Having Green in the corner seems counterintuitive — he’s not a threat as a shooter — but with Curry on the wing next to him, this is a tell that Green is about to initiate “blind pig” handoff action with Curry running to the corner and hopefully getting an open look because of Green’s defender sagging off.
However, Green’s defender happens to Antetokounmpo, who quickly diagnoses the action and uses his length and long stride to close the space quickly. Curry is discouraged from shooting and is forced to kick out to Thompson on the weak side. Khris Middleton’s hard close-out runs him off the line, and Thompson is forced into a tough floater against Lopez that misses — a shot the Bucks more than preferred even if the floater did go in.
The Bucks’ combination of size, length, and physicality gave the Warriors plenty of trouble on defense, but it also played a part during certain half-court offensive possessions from the Bucks. They’re far from the best half-court offense in the league (94.7 half-court offensive rating, 19th). It showed as much against the Warriors, where they won not because of their half-court offense (92.3 offensive rating, 42nd percentile), but because of their dominance in transition (180.0 offensive rating, 95th percentile).
Even while limited in the half court, the Bucks’ natural advantages — coupled with a bit of positional ingenuity — gave the Warriors trouble in half-court defense:
A quick “ghost” screen forces a switch, placing Anthony Lamb onto Antetokounmpo, who deems Lamb worthy enough of being a victim of an isolation post-up. Focus on what happens on the weak side when Antetokounmpo begins backing down:
The Bucks are fond of picking on opponents’ size, or lack thereof. The Warriors are glaringly smaller across the board. Hiding small personnel on the weak side when defending has its advantages — but it is also prone to having undersized help coming over to defend penetration or post-ups, which is what happens above when the Bucks park Allen in the dunker spot to render the help (Donte DiVincenzo) ineffective due to lack of size.
Rarely do the Warriors get beat by size. Through playing small, the Warriors built a dynasty predicated on running traditional bigs off the floor and forcing them to play their own game of fast-paced small ball. However, the Bucks are anything but traditional.
Lopez is a force at the rim. Antetokounmpo’s versatility and freakish physicality can give anyone trouble, but more so against an undersized unit. Bobby Portis is one of the league’s premier role players and bench stalwarts.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are too small, too disadvantaged athletically, and lack the requisite depth to match the Bucks toe-to-toe. Things may be different during their second regular season matchup, but as things stand, the Bucks are simply the much better team as presently constructed.