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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Milwaukee Bucks’ Defensive Transformation: On the Path to Championship-Caliber Status

SportsMilwaukee Bucks' Defensive Transformation: On the Path to Championship-Caliber Status

The obvious first issue that Doc Rivers had to address as the Milwaukee Bucks’ new coach in late January was the team’s flimsy defense.

Despite the sample size being a significant caution, Rivers appears to have solved the issue right away in the 16 games since taking over. Under Rivers, Milwaukee’s defense has significantly improved and now appears capable of leading this club to a title.

First, some numbers.

This is something I mentioned when Doc initially took over, and it bears repeating: The Denver Nuggets, who were 15th in defensive rating last season, had the “worst” defense. Since 2010, just two teams have won a championship with a defense outside the top 10. The Bucks’ defense was ranked 19th in the NBA from the beginning of the season until January 28. This was just not good enough. More than adequate, Milwaukee’s defense has ranked fourth in the NBA under Rivers since January 29. Officially, that is stingy.

The Denver club that won the championship the previous year is matched by the Bucks, who currently have the 15th-best defense in the league for the season. Milwaukee is undoubtedly improving. Following an inconsistent 3–7 start under Rivers, the Bucks have won six straight after the All-Star break. Of course, it helps to play clubs like the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets twice. However, Milwaukee has also triumphed over the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves, the latter of which did it without Giannis Antetokounmpo. Additionally, since February 6th, Khris Middleton—a crucial defensive component—hasn’t played.

The Bucks’ defense now feels more typical thanks to Rivers. It’s difficult to hold Adrian Griffin responsible for this group’s failure to find the ideal plan. Griffin intended to improve the team’s defense, but Damian Lillard’s late-summer deal appeared to deride his ambitions. Milwaukee’s defense, which stretched out individual defenders more than in prior seasons in an aggressive manner, was all over the place at the beginning of the season.

Under Rivers, the floor appears to be smaller because Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are both sticking closer to the hoop, which is similar to the drop that Mike Budenholzer used with great success. The Bucks were consistently outplayed on fast breaks in the first three months of the season, but since late January, the transition defense has also improved. Once more, Rivers is erring on the side of caution and emphasizing players making a comeback rather than shattering the glass.

When you combine those changes with players performing better, wise opponent-based decisions, and playing a few offensively challenged opponents, Milwaukee is beginning to assemble the kind of sustained run of inspired play that they were never really able to sustain under Griffin.

So, is Wisconsin just roses and ice cream and lovely springtime days? Even while I think this Bucks team is a far greater danger to win the championship than the one we saw before Rivers, I still need to watch how the defense plays against the greatest opponents. Later this month, games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, and Boston Celtics should be educational. Although a 3–0 victory is not necessary, can the Bucks slow those guys down?

In the end, I believe Middleton’s health will play a significant role. He was outstanding throughout the team’s 2021 championship run, and after suffering a knee injury in the postseason the following year, it seems like he has never really recovered. It appears that the Bucks are gradually recovering him from his present left ankle sprain, and it is undoubtedly a wise move. To defeat the best, Milwaukee will want the two-way Middleton.

For the time being, though, Rivers should be commended for his assistance in resolving the largest non-Celtics-related roadblock that stood in the way of the Bucks’ championship run. Milwaukee’s road to a championship this year was never going to be simple. But at least it seems like the Bucks have the defense they need to accomplish it at last.

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