After an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year, the Toronto Raptors seem primed to carry some playoff momentum into their first round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. While the season series between these two teams did not feature either team at full strength, a lot of information can be gleaned by pouring over the film.
Bucks Defensive Scheme
Pick and Roll Coverage
The Milwaukee Bucks do not deploy a traditional conservative pick and roll scheme on defense. Rather than dropping their big man and screen defenders into the paint, as much of the league has done in a post-Thibodeau NBA, the Bucks ask their bigs to jump up to the level of the screen to pressure the ball handler.
In scenarios where the pick and roll ball handler is driving towards the side of the court (rather than the middle), the Bucks jump up and high-wall, or aggressively show, with the screen defender. The goal of such a scheme is to force the ball out of the hands of a primary playmaker and into the hands of a secondary player across the court. Additionally, the Bucks will load up on the strong side of the floor with weak side defenders to tag the screener as they roll, further complicating the ball handler’s decision.
Attempt to pass to the roller and risk having the possession fizzle out as the defense recovers before they can make a decision. Throwing a skip pass to the weak side has its risks as well, as a ball-hawk on that side of the floor with good anticipation might nab a lobbed pass. Such passes work under the assumption that the ball handler can even safely rid themselves of the ball before the aggressive defenders strip it away.
As seen in the film above, when the Bucks overload the strong side of the floor, their aim is to make the ball handler as uncomfortable as possible. However, all of this is incredibly risky. One flawed step and the entire system falls apart.
Here, the Bucks do a tremendous job of tying DeMar DeRozan up along the sideline. They force him to pick up his dribble while they trap him along the imaginary third defender. However, as a result of two defenders (Jabari Parker and Tony Snell) defending a single offensive player, an advantage is created somewhere else on the floor. John Henson is blocking a simple pass to Valanciunas on the block, leaving two weak side defenders to cover three perimeter shooters. After Matthew Dellavedova removes Patrick Patterson from the scenario, DeRozan has no choice but to throw a skip pass to Kyle Lowry. Giannis Antetokounmpo feints the wrong way for a split second and allows Lowry to catch the ball cleanly, securing a two-on-one scenario where DeMarre Carroll lands an open three. This example is representative of the Bucks’ fatal flaw, as once a link is broken, the entire chain falls apart.
The possibilities for such an aggressive defense to fall apart are nearly endless. A Raptors guards can blow by a screen defender who has shown too high or snake towards the middle against one that has sagged too low. A screener left untagged on his roll can catch the ball and pass around the perimeter or dive towards the paint and finish at the rim. An overeager off-ball defender is often prone to leaving their primary assignment a beat too early, allowing for an easy pass to the weak side that can result in an open jumper or a closeout that is out of control.
Ram Pick and Roll
The Raptors have a few set plays that are ideal for attacking such a defensive scheme, such as their Ram pick and roll series.
This will delay the screener’s defender from meeting the ball handler at the level of the screen, which can create enough separation to snake towards the middle of the floor, or simply drive by the big as Lowry has done in the clip above.
Though the Bucks will attempt to heavily deny the ball handler the use of a screen, therefore not allowing a drive towards the middle of the court, the Raptors can still attempt to do so with sets such as their Wedge Stagger pick and roll.
The Bucks are going to utilize a variety of defensive schemes once the Raptors force their way into the middle of the floor on pick and rolls. They will surely hedge-and-recover at some point, though with the Raptors ability to play shooters 1 through 5, it seems unlikely. Here, the Bucks’ answer to Wedge Stagger was to switch. When this happens throughout the series, the Raptors must properly find the advantage. If DeRozan is efficiently attacking a mismatch, he has to go to work. If Valanciunas has a smaller defender switch onto him, he has to attack the offensive glass and create as much havoc as he did through the first two rounds of the 2016 playoffs, as well as establishing post position to punish the size difference. Interestingly enough, the Bucks’ post defense follows the same principles as their pick and roll defense.
Post Defense Coverage
The Raptors have a few players that are capable of attacking mismatches in the post. DeRozan (who ranks as the 2nd most efficient post player in the NBA among those who have used 100 such possession, with 1.13 PPP) will likely pick apart Dellavedova, Snell, Terry, and possibly Brogdon from the low block if they pick him up in semi-transition.
Another potential post player the Raptors might single out to attack a mismatch is newly acquired Serge Ibaka. While his contributions offensively are important as a whole, he has been prone to turning the ball over when posting up against aggressive defenses during the regular season. His vision and overall awareness in post up scenarios has been poor, as defenders who dig down from the perimeter have been able to strip him or force an errant pass.
Valanciunas will likely punish any non-Monroe defender that is tasked with guarding him. With the huge potential for post play, the Bucks will encourage their defenders to front the post, as well as task their weak side defenders with loading up on the strong side of the court even when they cannot successfully front. This defensive style produces tons of turnovers, as they routinely tip and steal imprecise entry passes. Even when the post player has the ball on the low block, they are still forced to pass it off as they are walled off by two defenders. This forces a difficult pass, as the Bucks’ length obscures which players are truly open on the weak side of the court. But just as their aggressive pick and roll scheme, it cannot be deployed without risk.
When the post player possesses the ball and is faced with a trap, poise is incredibly important to identify which teammate the defense is leaning away from. While it is easier said than done, once completed, the rest of the possession is just about being decisive and finding the open man along the perimeter. When the off-ball defenders are too conservative and leave an offensive player untagged in the middle of the floor, the Raptors can flash to the high post and attack 4-on-3 as they did in aggressive pick and roll scenarios.
Iverson Slice Punch
The Raptors also have a few pet plays to battle against this type of defense, such as their Iverson Slice Punch play
This comes out of the Raptors Iverson series, which is normally used to get DeRozan freed from a defender by running from one side of the court to the other – also known as an Iverson Cut. However, a following option out of this series is to have Valanciunas use a Slice Cut as Carroll sets a screen for him from the Elbow to the opposite block. This forces Valanciunas’ defender to follow under Carroll’s screen, as they risk being sealed out of the paint if trailing over the top. Once they have recovered, Valanciunas will already be in the post and ready to attack any of the Bucks’ smaller defenders, from Thon Maker to Antetokounmpo.
Big Picture Defensive Thoughts
Whether the Raptors are attacking out of pick and roll or from the low block, their issue remains the same within the context of this series. It boils down to the same principles that all offenses are dependent on – how effectively can you create advantages, as well as execute on them. The Bucks willingly present the advantage by aggressively assigning two defenders on the ball as soon as possible. Much of the Raptors’ efficiency on offense will come down to whether the scale tips in their favour to find the advantage somewhere else on the floor. That might become present in the form of open shooters along the perimeter, cleaner driving lanes once the ball has swung, as well as easier offensive rebounds when defender’s are out of position because of such a frantic defensive identify. However, it would not be overly surprising to see the Bucks switch a lot of pick and rolls, especially involving like-sized defenders.
Where things get very interesting is when they use a sparingly deployed Antetokounmpo at centre lineup, which has played 126 minutes (depending on who you consider a centre), with 83 of those using Jabari Parker, who is unavailable for this series. Jason Kidd has shown he has no problem playing an unconventional lineup, so it will be interesting how untraditional he gets. Ultimately, the effectiveness of such a lineup will be determined by how badly the Bucks get hurt on the offensive glass by Valanciunas and Ibaka, relative to the damage they can do by switching and attacking in transition against a slower front court.
The Bucks’ versatility on the defensive end translates into similarly a varied and interchangeable attack offensively. Their base offense is referred to as the Corner Offense, an offensive attack that Rick Adelman’s teams routinely deployed. Think Kevin Love’s Timberwolves working at the elbows. Its complexity and intricacies are too numerous to outline in its entirety, as the branches of decision making are vast, but a few of the most notable reads and options will be outlined.
The formation of the Corner Offense has two players stationed at the elbows, one in the strong side corner, the ball handler slotted above him on the wing and the last player positioned on the weak side wing.
Corner Offense – Continuity
The first series of actions we’ll look at out of the Corner Offense is the base continuity portion of the Bucks’ offense.
A dribble entry followed by a pass to the elbow occurs on one side of the court. The two off-ball, strong side wing players will screen for each other and read the defense to decide where and when to cut. Overplay the top side of the screen and the lower corner player will cut back door. Switch and a defender might get sealed off from the paint. Regardless of the decision the corner players make, the elbow passer is the decision maker and must decide whether the screens have freed either player enough to warrant a somewhat risky pass.
If the basket cuts are denied by the defense, one of the Bucks’ corner players will exit along the baseline while the other engages in a dribble handoff at the elbow. This is effectively a pick and roll, as the player receiving the ball in the handoff is being screened for by the offensive player at the elbow. With their momentum carrying them to the rim and their defender behind them, the new ball handler will generally have a two-on-one into the middle of the floor.
If the handoff option is denied by tremendous defense, the Bucks will clear the strong side of the floor so the player at the elbow can isolate and go to work. This is where Antetokounmpo will surely do a ton of damage, as he has the vision to pass from the elbow to tricky cutters, as well as the obvious transcendent skill to get to the rim at will.
Corner Offense – Elbow Get
Another play that Antetokounmpo will clearly excel at is the Bucks’ Elbow Get, or a pick and roll at the free throw line.
The ball is entered to the elbow, sometimes after a dribble handoff (DHO) between the two strong side players, sometimes through a direct entry. Regardless, the player situated at the strong side elbow then turns into a pick and roll with the player stationed at the opposite elbow for a quick pick and roll. The 2015 Houston Rockets, featuring Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, beat the athletically challenged Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs by forcing Dirk Nowitzki to defend this action as often as possible.
A nice wrinkle the Bucks throw in for this actions is utilizing a guard in some manner. This can come in the form of them running the pick and roll themselves, being stationed at the opposite elbow as the eventual screener, or being screened before they screen the ball themselves. Regardless of how they incorporate both small and large players into this action, the important theme to take away is Jason Kidd’s willingness to put unconventional personnel into uncomfortable positions for optimal results. Traditionally, only big men are slotted at the elbows, with guards and wings filling out the remaining positions in the Corner Offense. Kidd throws that out the window and utilizes his personnel in the ways he sees fit.
Corner Offense – Exchange
Another wrinkle the Bucks use with their Corner Offense is infuriating in its simplicity, but admirable in its efficacy.
Instead of the primary ball handler entering the ball to the elbow, they’ll just exchange positions with the player that is deepest in the corner. Within this little handoff, a screen is created along the sideline, where the new ball handler is shielded from his defender by the handoff. Snell is an assassin from behind the arc with this action as he hunts down this shot more than most.
Corner Offense – Weak Side Step Up Ball Screen
The next action out of the Bucks’ Corner Offense is a ball reversal into a weak side Step Up ball screen.
The ball handler will usually enter the ball into the high post, as Bucks do to trigger many of their options. Instead of running Elbow Get, the ball gets reversed to the weak side of the court, where two Bucks are in position for the following action. The perimeter player quickly catches the ball and then engages in a pick and roll with the screener at the elbow. The quickness that the Bucks run this action with is crucial, as the weak side on-ball defender steps up and is quickly caught on the screen and can generally force a switch. The Bucks will probably go to this action quite a bit as a consistent vehicle to isolate Khris Middleton on smaller guards after they secure a switch with a properly spaced floor.
The Bucks take an interesting approach to an action that is used with regularity around the league. In (semi) transition, they’ll utilize a double screen for their ball handler – also known as a Double Drag Screen.
What they do differently than everyone else is the placement of the screens. With the understanding that Antetokounmpo’s biggest flaw is his perimeter shooting, the Bucks compensate by setting the double screen as low as possible. The higher the screen, the more room for the defense to duck under. The advantage gained by setting screens this low is that if the defense still ducks under, they will only be able to recover back to Antetokounmpo once he has a full head of steam and is essentially at the rim.
They also like to use a guard as one of the screeners, which serves two purposes. First, it forces a similarly small guard to hedge onto Antetokounmpo, with the hope that they will not actually be able to impede his progress towards the rim with their slender frame. Second, and possibly more important, is that it forces one of the two screen defenders to stay along the perimeter. This renders them useless as a help defender for the roll man, who is most likely free on the account that their primary defender has rotated to stop the Antetokounmpo drive.
Another common action the Bucks use in transition is Pistol.
Pistol (also known as 21), is a quick hitter that somewhat resembles the sideline handoff described in the Bucks’ corner offense. The ball handler utilizes a step up ball screen from a guard that is deep in the corner. The screener then proceeds to use a flare screen themselves. This stretches and contorts the defense into uncomfortable positions in an early offense situation where help defense is already problematic. The Bucks will also use this as an avenue to get their bigger ball handlers (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) into the post quickly – and in an ideal world for them, against a smaller guard who had to switch onto them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Post Ups
As much as quick hitters and intricate play calls make the playoffs an interesting setting, so many games come down to what advantage can consistently be exploited. The Bucks have a gigantic Greek one that is a walking mismatch. In the regular season, Antetokounmpo looked far too strong for Carroll and (more surprisingly) Patrick Patterson. P.J. Tucker will surely get his fair shot at stopping the dynamic Antetokounmpo, as will Ibaka. If Tucker can’t hold his ground in the post, Ibaka risks being exploited along the perimeter (though, if Ibaka gets switched on to him in pick and roll scenarios, I have a feeling that Antetokounmpo will back up and try to dance in isolation, which seems like a favourable outcome for the Raptors).
Regardless of who matches up with Antetokounmpo as the Bucks cross half court, they risk being shoved into the post or screened off so Antetokounmpo can work against a smaller guard (Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Joseph) from the block. Despite what his points per possession numbers say, Antetokounmpo’s ability to attack smaller players in the post is a problem. The Raptors will inevitably send the same type of help from the weak side of the floor that the Bucks will direct towards Valanciunas and DeRozan when they have the ball, but Antetokounmpo’s vision outclasses the Raptors’ post options. It might just come down to how his supporting cast is able to convert from the perimeter after they are freed by the attention Antetokounmpo draws. In a lesser role, I also expect Middleton to attack the Raptors’ smaller players from the post as well. Though, with him holding the ball and Antetokounmpo away from it, the Bucks seem easier to defend.
Even though these teams did not square off against one another during the regular season as they stand now, a lot of offensive and defensive cues were learned. The Bucks are going to be an aggressive team when defending pick and rolls and post ups, which will inevitably lead to their fair share of steals. Ranking 5th in the league in points off turnovers was not a coincidence, but neither was their defensive rebounding being ranked 27th. All that chaos leads to out of position defenders and block out responsibilities, which inevitably results in offensive rebounds. Valanciunas has been a dominant, series altering force in the playoffs with his production on the offensive glass, so there will surely be times in which he produces as such in this series. Ultimately, his impact will determine whether the Bucks can survive as a small and aggressive team. If they can’t, the balance tips in the Raptors’ favour to a sizeable degree.
The defensive side will be similarly interesting for the Raptors, as illustrated above. There is no “answer” for Antetokounmpo. He is going to score a lot of points in transition and at the rim. His ability to hunt down mismatches for post ups will be vital to the Bucks’ offensive sustainability, as to will their intricate Corner Offense, which allows for tinkering to find where personnel can be maximized the most.
This will surely be an interesting series to monitor from a tactical perspective, as both coaches have the personnel to experiment when things are not working. The Raptors are obvious favourites as a higher seed against an inexperienced Bucks team, but the tactical differences will truly show who has the upper hand in this series.