EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

NBA Finals Game 2 preview: Bucks’ ‘steady diet’ of defenses; Suns’ pace

Jul 7, 2021, 4:55 PM | Updated: Jul 8, 2021, 7:24 am
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) scores as Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and Bucks ...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) scores as Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, left, look on during the second half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals, Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — When a great defensive team has to talk about a defensive performance that was below par, you can hear it in the players’ voices that it irks them in a certain way. That’s to be expected given the amount of work and attention to detail it takes to reach that point as a group.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been the best defensive team in the NBA playoffs, a reputation they did not play up to on Tuesday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a 118-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

It was no surprise to hear Bucks guard Jrue Holiday say on Wednesday before practice that the team wasn’t “super unhappy” with their offense and that most of the attention in their film study was on defense.

Both he and P.J. Tucker went into detail on a few different things on that end.

Milwaukee started the game switching everything, which I’d guess was much to the glee of the Suns’ Devin Booker and Chris Paul. They were able to pick out their preferred mark, oftentimes Bucks center Brook Lopez, and got to work from there.

When that didn’t work, the Bucks went into their most traditional scheme with Lopez in a drop coverage on ball screens.

Booker and Paul do not need an invitation to create their own midrange buckets, but when defenses give up that space, the invite was in the mail, the limo picked ’em up, the red carpet was rolled out and so on.

The Los Angeles Lakers in the first round against the Suns were far less about going from Plan A to Plan B, more so about using Plans A-E consistently.

It sounds like that’s what Holiday wants, who had Booker shoot 0-for-6 on him when that matchup held, per NBA.com’s tracking data.

“Switching it up on Chris and Book, trying to make them uncomfortable, not give them a steady diet of the same thing; and doing that from the beginning of the game,” he said.

He repeated the same sentiment in a separate answer.

“But again, I think we kind of figured that giving him or giving those two guys the same dose of action or defense doesn’t work,” Holiday said.

That could mean blitzing/trapping and hedging, providing a more aggressive initial chase at the ball-handler, which Booker will refer to sometimes as “junk defenses” when it’s extreme enough.

It could also be more switching, but just fighting back against the ones the Suns want to create, what can be referred to as a “soft switch” when teams easily give them up.

That’s something Holiday likes to prevent on his own if he can, but he’s just a player executing a gameplan sometimes. Ditto for Tucker, who allows Booker on this example to get Bryn Forbes on him.

For Booker, that’s like placing the BBQ chicken onto his plate.

As Giannis Antetokounmpo said Wednesday, the switching 1-5 is about denying downhill drives, so on this play, that’s the wall Lopez is trying to form. But fully switching on a Frank Kaminsky dive?

In a drop, the defense is just allowing Paul to arrive at where he wants to shoot from. (Shoutout to ESPN’s Mike Breen in the clip saying Paul “loves that spot.”)

Here’s another switching example that ends up with Booker being double-teamed and a rare occurrence of him turning down an open shooter (Mikal Bridges in the corner) for his own shot. But even in that crowd, Booker is able to snake through the action without much resistance before getting to his spot.

You wonder if Holiday fights through that screen more aggressively in Game 2.

Tucker was asked about those switches and broke it down more intricately.

“They are obviously picking and choosing pick-and-rolls, who they want to pick up and who they don’t,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been able to navigate and try to figure out especially throughout the playoffs with Brooklyn, with Atlanta a little bit, like just figuring it out, and it’s something we’ve got to do in this series, as well.

“Jrue is really good at kind of looking like he’s going to switch, and then not, and then kind of playing the game. With me, it’s more aggressive, just throwing at either one or the other. But we as a team have to figure out how we want to handle a lot of those kind of softer switches, especially with guard-on-guard.”

If all those Xs and Os don’t tickle your fancy, elite teams like the Bucks or the Suns aren’t used to losing the margins, something that was apparent in Game 1 in transition.

The Bucks gave up the third-fewest fastbreak points in the regular season, a rank they have maintained in the playoffs too, but that average now of 9.0 got bumped after the Suns got 20 in Game 1.

For Tucker, that came down to something else they were doing wrong.

“Not turn the ball over,” Tucker said. “Just the way we turned it over, we gave up a few really silly ones. We get down on turnovers, we don’t give up transition points. We are really good at transition.”

And while the Suns are fine in that department, it’s certainly not somewhere they’ve excelled. They are at 11.5 fastbreak points per game in the playoffs after 13.1 for the regular season, marks in the top-half of the league.

Paul said after Game 1 that assistant coach Willie Green wanted him to get the ball across halfcourt before the shot clock got below 20 seconds. That’s been a tug and pull with Paul all season, something he admitted comes up in his animated conversations with teammates over the course of the season, as Paul’s teams historically have always played slower.

“I’m trying to make a conscious effort of making sure we’re playing with the right pace,” he said Tuesday.

Paul added more on that after practice.

“We have a young, athletic team,” he said Wednesday. “So sometimes it may be DA running out ahead or Book or Mikal. We’re just trying to get the ball up quick to see what we’ve got.”

Here’s one of those key possessions, when Paul looks up and sees 3-on-3, so not necessarily a numbers advantage. But he pushes anyway, and there’s one of those athletes in Bridges filling a gap.

To wrap here’s one more from the closing section of the game, another where there’s not a clear-cut opportunity.

But Paul gets crafty trapping Antetokounmpo into a foul by putting him in jail for a half-second before shooting.

Williams has always said the team is at its best when they play with a bit more intention to run, and the Suns keeping that up over the course of the series would be big.

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