We always do a recap after games, so read them first if you want to see how the game unfolded. With notebook observations, I want to highlight the aspects of the game that are more difficult to see for a casual fan when watching the game live in real-time.
Today we’ll deep-dive into Milwaukee defense, how they focus on defending the paint and what coach Carlisle did to counter that.
Milwaukee’s elite defense protects the paint at all costs
Milwaukee Bucks are the NBA’s best defense over the course of the last two seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass data:
- Milwaukee was the first ranked defense last season and second best defense in the 2018-19 season
The key pillar of coach Budenholzer’s defense is protecting the paint. Milwaukee does that at all costs, even if it means open three-point shots. You would think this goes against NBA modern principles and influx of three-point shooting. But NBA offenses are really good and no defense can take away everything. An uncontested shot at the rim is still a more efficient shot than any three-point shot, and Buck's defense doesn’t let many of them.
- Milwaukee was first in the league in 2018-19 and 2019-20 in rim shot frequency (allowed the least amount of shots at the rim).
- Milwaukee was number one in the league in 2018-19 and 2019-20 in rim shot accuracy (allowed the lowest field goal percentage for shots at the rim).
On the other hand, the Bucks allowed the most three-point shot attempts in the league (were 28th and 30th in three-point frequency).
Bucks huge free safety against pick and roll wizard Luka Dončić
- The backbone of Buck’s defense are 7’0 Brook Lopez and 6’11 Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks mostly play Brook Lopez in a conservative drop coverage (waiting in the paint instead of switching or hedging/showing) in the pick and rolls to help on rim attacks. Dallas Mavericks feature one of the most pick and roll heavy offenses in the league that is built around Dončić’s drives in the pain.
- Luka Dončić currently leads NBA with 23.8 drives per game
Here is how the pick and roll battle unfolded yesterday evening:
- Dallas was without five key rotation players (Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell). This meant that Carlisle had to play two non-shooters (Wes Iwundu, Willie Cauley-Stein) in the starting lineup. Not having Kleber available hurt the most, as highlighted by coach Budenholzer pre-game when he talked about how they prepare for Maverick pick and roll:
“We see a lot of it, so hopefully we’re getting better and mixing up how we can maybe stay with that shooter better. Kleber’s really a problem for us, so the fact that he’s unavailable maybe changes that dynamic just a little bit.” - Mike Budenholzer
- This meant Lopez guarded non-shooting threats (Cauley-Stein, James Johnson, Iwundu, Josh Green) most of the night in Luka pick and roll actions. Here you can see Lopez in a drop coverage, waiting at the nail, because Cauley-Stein is not a threat in the pick and pop.
- Cauley-Stein is a roll threat, so he can provide vertical spacing in the pick and roll by attacking the rim.
- But because Richardson and Finney-Smith didn’t play, Dallas had to play another non-shooting threat in Iwundu. You can see in the above picture how Middleton helps off him on Dončić’s drives, even from the strong side off the court. Here is another possession when Lopez should guard Iwundu after a switch, yet he left him wide open to help in the paint.
Even when Luka scored in the paint, there were no easy layups. Here is an example of a spread pick and roll (all five Mavericks are behind the three-point line). Cauley-Stein does a great job screening, by changing the direction of the screen at the last moment, so Dončić can get by Holiday. Cauley-Stein then runs towards the rim, and you can see Lopez backing on Luka's drive and contesting his floater.
When Dallas played smaller lineups with Kristaps Porzingis at the center and Iwundu at the other big spot, coach Bud would have Khris Middleton or Giannis Antetokounmpo guard Porzingis and almost let Lopez roam on defense as a free safety. In this possession, Lopez is (not) guarding Iwundu and prevents Dončić’s drive.
You can see why Dallas really struggled in this game when Lopez was on the floor. Lopez was had a +10 plus-minus in this game and a +17.3 net rating.
It speaks volumes about Dončić’s skills and Carlisle’s adjustments that Dončić still managed to score 18 points in the paint, with Jrue Holiday on his back and Lopez waiting for him in the paint all night long.
Rick Carlisle’s counters
Let’s look at three different counters that Carlisle used to attack Milwaukee’s ‘protecting the paint at all cost’ defense.
- The best way to score at the rim is to attack early before the defense is set. Dallas often runs Pistol (21) actions for their guards, usually when Burke or Brunson play the point. Here is a 21 Ghost Chase play they ran in the first quarter. Hardaway sets a ghost (fake) screen for Luka at the sideline, Holiday and DiVincenzo miscommunicated on the switch, Luka gets an easy layup. Check the video again to see how far back Lopez is in this possession, as he still almost blocked the shot.
Stack pick and roll
- I noticed Dallas played a lot of stack pick and rolls in the first half against the Bucks, especially when Boban was on the floor. Stack (or Spain) pick and roll is an action where a second screen would be set in pick and roll action. Typically, a shooter sets a screen on the roller’s defender. Check this play where Boban screens for Dončić, and Burke sets a back screen on Portis. Portis tries to drop back in the paint but didn’t expect the Burke screen. Augustin tries to keep Boban out of the paint until Portis recovers, so he is late to contest open Burke's three-point shot.
- Milwaukee stayed in drop coverage in stack pick and roll actions as well. This is why I like this wrinkle where Hardaway faked the second screen on Portis and went to the three-point line instead. Stack action complicates pick and roll coverage and you can see how all three Milwaukee defenders stayed focused on Luka and Porzingins while Hardaway Jr. hit an open jump shot.
I’m always curious to see what kinds of adjustments coaches make at half time. In this game, at the beginning of the second half, Carlisle ran the same play three times, always producing quality shots. It was a version of a 45 ballscreen action, where two bigs (four and a five) set back screens for Dončić. In this clip, you can see how it makes chasing Luka from behind more difficult for Holiday. Cauley-Stein rolled to the rim and Luka found him with a nice alley-oop pass.
Two possessions later, Dallas runs the same play. Holiday fights over the screen again and manages to stay in front of Dončić, but Giannis overreacts and fouls Luka. Dončić makes the shot and gets a free-throw.
Next possession, Carlisle calls for the same play for the third time in the first three minutes of the third quarter. Holiday again does a great job of fighting over the screen and chasing Dončić. But Holiday overreacts and drops in the paint, expecting a drive. Portis makes a mistake switching on Cauley-Stein instead of staying on Porzingis (you can see Lopez point this out in the video). Luka takes a step-back three but misses an open shot. It was still a quality shot for Dončić, he could also pass to wide-open Porzingis for an even better look.
Although Dallas lost this one, it was a fun game. I liked how Carlisle found different ways to counter Milwaukee's defense. Dallas really missed their wing players, which would allow Carlisle to play lineups with four competent shooters around Dončić.
Teams will always dare Dallas wing players to shoot and beat them that way. Especially in the clutch (and in the playoffs) defenses would collapse around Luka and help off the worst shooter in the Mavericks lineup. I hope this deep-dive will help you see better next time how teams defend Dončić in the pick and roll and what Carlisle is doing to counter that.