The Whiteboard: Do the Bucks have the individual defenders to slow down the Nets?

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Matchups are key in any playoff series but, as we saw Sunday, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets might present the most interesting array of possibilities in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn’s offense is scaffolded by three of the most brilliant individual offensive creators in recent memory, with a slew of talented and versatile role players around them. However, on paper, the Bucks have perhaps the best collection of individual defenders to try and stop them.

Giannis Antetokounmpo can defend five positions on the ball or act as a game-changing rim protector. He was Defensive Player of the Year last year and has three career All-Defense teams selections. Jrue Holiday has made two All-Defense teams in his career and has the strength, size and agility to defend either 1s or 2s. Before he became one of the most efficient complementary scorers in the league, Khris Middleton made his bones as a defensive specialist defending all manner of wings. He’s never made an All-Defense team but has been a very strong defender throughout his career. And then there’s P.J. Tucker, another strong team defender whose career has been unrecognized by defensive awards. Tucker began his career as a wing but he’s functioned mostly as a small-ball big the past few years.

On paper, this gives the Bucks a variety of defensive options for their man-to-man matchups. Holiday could handle Kyrie Irving or James Harden. Middleton could handle Harden or Kevin Durant. Giannis and Tucker could also both spend time as Durant’s primary defender. We got a glimpse how this might shake out in Milwaukee’s 117-114 win over the Nets on Sunday, although the problem was simplified since Harden was still out of the lineup.

How did the Milwaukee Bucks defend the Brooklyn Nets elite scorers?

First a caveat. The Bucks won, thanks in large part, to Giannis’ highest-scoring game of the season and they didn’t exactly stifle Brooklyn’s offense, who scored 114 points. But they did hold the Nets to an average of 109.6 points per 100 possessions which is well below Brooklyn’s season-long average and ranked in the bottom fifth of the team’s per-game offensive efficiency marks this season.

Irving dropped 20 points but needed 21 shots to get there and racked up 4 turnovers to go with his 6 assists. According to the NBA’s defensive matchup statistics, Holiday was Irving’s primary defender for about 58 percent of his possessions and the best indicator of Holiday’s efficacy is that Irving attempted just four shots on the 29 possessions he was defending him. That’s a rate of about 21 field goal attempts per 100 possessions against a season-long average of 27.8 for Irving.

Durant went for 42 points but, again, the Bucks’ defenders were able to make him work for it. He finished with five turnovers and took 33 shots to get his points. According to the NBA’s player-tracking statistics, two-thirds of Durant’s shot attempts were tightly defended (the defender was four feet or closer at the time of the shot) and if he hadn’t hit an absurd 5-of-7 on tightly defended 3-pointers his box score line could have looked a lot worse. According to the NBA’s defensive matchup statistics, Tucker had primary responsibility for Durant, acting as his primary defender on about 34 percent of his possessions, with Middleton taking him for another 25 percent.

Obviously, the return of Harden in a playoff series would complicate this but Middleton would have a lot of defensive possessions available to take Harden with Giannis still functioning primarily in the off-ball, rim-protecting, free-safety role in which he thrives. Remember in a playoff series, the Bucks don’t necessarily need to shut the Nets down completely (which isn’t happening anyway). But pushing them off their normal level of efficiency could create enough of an opening for the Bucks to power their way through.

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