Why you should care

In a league obsessed with the 3-point shot, Milwaukee is encouraging teams to shoot their way out of the game.

A trained basketball eye could spot Milwaukee’s strategy from a mile away, but in realtime, on March 13 it was understandable for confused fans to wonder what, exactly, the Bucks were doing on defense against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bucks allowed shot after shot, often open and from 3-point range, to forward Julius Randle and guards Ian Clark and Frank Jackson. Like clockwork, when Randle would pick for a guard at the top of the key, his defender would sag deep into the paint, forcing a pass and practically daring the big man to shoot a 3. If Clark or Jackson kept the ball, their defenders would do the same. In total, those three Pelicans shot 3-of-22 from deep.

It’s a peculiar strategy in today’s NBA, where 3-pointers are a pivotal component of any efficient, high-scoring offense. Against New Orleans, Milwaukee sat back as 107 shots, including a Pelicans franchise-record 47 3-pointers, rained down. New Orleans made just 10 of those 3s and 46 shots in total. On the flip side, Milwaukee made 48 of 97 shots in a 130-113 win. And this strategy wasn’t a one-off. Milwaukee is leading the league by turning the deep-ball obsession on its head.

The best defense in the NBA allows roughly the most made 3-pointers and 3-point attempts per game.

The Bucks (51-17) lead the NBA with a 104.6 defensive rating (all stats as of Friday), which conveys points scored per 100 possessions. Traditional basketball theory assumes that top defenses allow fewer 3-pointers. And in today’s NBA— where sharpshooting Golden State has won three of the last four NBA Finals — most teams try to limit to the shot. Not Milwaukee. As evidenced by the 47 treys chucked by New Orleans, the Bucks allow 35.1 3-point attempts (most in the league) and 12.5 makes (second-most behind Minnesota’s 12.6) per game. For context, Milwaukee allowed just 27 such shots and 10 makes per game in 2017–18, when they finished seventh in the Eastern Conference. Yet the Bucks have dominated the East this season and look like the most capable finals contender outside Golden State.

“That’s what we are relying on: contested 3-point shots,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton told reporters after beating New Orleans. “Get a stop and after that just push the pace. Push the ball and play with pace and energy.”

 

As Middleton points out, the Bucks are challenging all those 3s. Allowing NBA sharpshooters to rain unchecked would be a fool’s strategy. But it matters who’s shooting those shots. If Milwaukee meets Golden State in the finals, don’t expect Klay Thompson and Steph Curry to go unchecked (that’s where superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 7-foot-3 wingspan comes in handy). Rather, the Bucks will likely be happy to let DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green and Jonas Jerebko shoot their shot. The strategy worked in two regular-season contests — with Jerebko shooting as many or more 3s (13) than Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant.

“You never want to let a good shooting team shoot you out of a game,” says David Griffin, the former Cleveland general manager turned Turner Sports and NBA on TNT analyst. “But it’s about contesting those 3s and limiting the easy 2s. Milwaukee has it figured out.”

Need a visual example? Check out the way Bucks center Brook Lopez (No. 11 in white) defends a Memphis pick and roll here: 

bucks defense v1

By dropping into the lane, Lopez allows his teammate Eric Bledsoe (No. 6) to stay close enough to defend a potential Mike Conley 3-pointer. When Conley passes to Marc Gasol, the worse shooter of the Memphis duo, Lopez lets him fire away.

By sagging off Gasol, Lopez also eliminates Conley’s potential to attack the basket. That’s the key. The Bucks have made a conscious choice to take away easy 2-point field goals while encouraging outside shots from less dangerous players. So far this season, the Bucks allow the fewest shots within 5 feet of the basket (27.7) per game.

All of this is highly ironic. Lopez is one of Milwaukee’s best outside shooters, while potential league MVP Antetokounmpo makes fewer than one 3-pointer per game. If the Bucks played themselves every night, they’d probably fare much worse.

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