All that was advertised as good about the Milwaukee Bucks defense was on display in the fourth quarter of their 105-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night.
This season, we’re supposed to see a much more defensively focused group of Milwaukee big men. Either through development, as in the case of Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh, or offseason acquisition, as in the case of Samuel Dalembert, the Bucks spent the past summer focusing on getting better defenders at the power forward and center positions. Milwaukee is now supposed to have a fearsome front court, capable of protecting the rim and freeing up Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders to do damage.
Monday, they had that. Specifically in the fourth quarter.
Brandon Jennings was ecstatic about the Bucks pick and roll defense in the final quarter during which Milwaukee held Philly to 19% shooting (4-for-21):
“Our pick-and-roll defense in the fourth quarter was awesome,” Jennings said. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen it. Especially against a team like Philly that came in here and had won three straight. They had been playing well all-around.
Jrue Holiday did a bit of carving up Milwaukee’s defense early. He played well as a pick and roll ball-handler and used an array of spin moves and general acrobatics to get into the paint for short jumpers and to the rim for layups throughout the first three quarters. He entered the fourth 9-of-15 from the field with 21 points.
But Milwaukee had forced Holiday into six turnovers and surely knew he’d be capable of giving the ball away more in the fourth. With mobile defenders like Udoh and Sanders down low, the Bucks now have the opportunity to blitz point guards on the pick and roll and force them into difficult spots. With the Bucks up 96-93 and just 4:07 left in the game, Sanders did exactly that.
After a screen, he harassed Holiday outside the 3-point line. Holiday’s screener, Spencer Hawes, had floated into a pick in the middle of the lane and when Holiday made the crucial error of leaving his feet, he had no one to pass to and Sanders long arms obstructing his view. He lofted a bounce pass over the middle and Marquis Daniels intercepted it, moved it to a streaking Monta Ellis and then scored off Ellis’ missed jumper to put the Bucks up five.
Holiday made just 1-of-3 shots in the fourth quarter and turned the ball over twice.
Defense leading to offense is what Scott Skiles has been preaching ever since he arrived as Bucks head coach and specifically Skiles was excited about Milwaukee’s length potentially leading to even more of those occurrences this season. Rarely has their been a better example than the play that led to Daniels’ basket.
The Bucks length did more than just force bad passes in the fourth though. Milwaukee did a good job of keeping Philadelphia out of the paint in the fourth quarter and making things difficult for them when they were able to enter. Philly took six shots in the paint in the final quarter and had three of them blocked.
The blocked shots, an ability to cover for perimeter mistakes and an allowance for Jennings and Ellis to pressure ball-handlers with greater impunity were all advertised as benefits of going big and long in the front court over the summer. Against Philly, John Hammond and Scott Skiles looked like prophets, as even with a small lineup late, Milwaukee was able to keep on active, mobile big on the court at all times to help hold off a solid Sixers team. Last season, when the Bucks would go “small”, they would be left with just Drew Gooden to defend the basket.
This season, when they go “small” as they did Tuesday with a Jennings/Ellis/Daniels/Mike Dunleavy/Sanders lineup to close things out, they can trot out of one of the league’s best shot-blockers.
And, to their credit, that’s just how they planned it.