Unwilling or unable: Milwaukee’s defensive issues

I’ve had a weird problem when dishing out grades to Milwaukee Bucks players after games recently.

Over and over, guys are tossing out some pretty solid lines. For a guy like Brandon Jennings, outside of his last two games, he’s been shooting better than 40% regularly and handing out more than 10 assists very often. Monta Ellis has been on one of the more efficient offensive runs of his career during the second half of this season. Ersan Ilyasova has been scoring and rebounding very well when he’s been healthy in March and Larry Sanders is a walking double-double when he doesn’t get ejected.

Yet the Bucks have lost six of their last eight games. Pretty offensive numbers can’t always mask a terrible defense. But lately, the Bucks have been in the difficult position of having players succeed offensively while failing miserably on the other end.

Ilyasova was a terrific example against the Hawks on Sunday. Despite failing to hit a three, he had a very passable line of 19 points and 10 rebounds in just 28 minutes. He grabbed six offensive rebounds and made five free throws. It was everything the Bucks could have wanted Ilyasova to do on offense in his first game back after missing Milwaukee’s past three games with a back injury.

This picture could have been taken a few times on Sunday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

But on the other end, Ilyasova had significant troubles with Josh Smith. Smith caught the ball in the post and made a first move too quick for Ilyasova to stay with, leading to two easy dunks. He caught the ball in a misdirected pick and roll and was way too fast for Ilyasova to move over and interrupt his path, leading to another easy dunk. Late in the fourth quarter, Smith caught a pass at the top of the key and simply blew by Ilyasova to his left, finished and got fouled for an and-one. Every way Smith wanted to score, he did.

But Ilyasova could hardly come out of the game.

“The problem is, if I try another match-up  then I’m taking Ers off the floor,” Jim Boylan said after the game. “This isn’t Iowa girls basketball. You can’t have a guy on one end and a guy on the other end. Ers battles him, it’s not for lack of effort, let me just put it that way.”

I wish it were lack of effort. Lack of effort can be fixed with some rotation jumbling and a few well placed benchings. With Ilyasova, it obviously isn’t his effort. With Ellis, with Jennings, it’s less clear. We know they give it their all on offense. We love the big assist numbers and Monta’s fourth quarter threes. We see Jennings pressing full court on defense often and Ellis sneaking up on unsuspecting big men for steals.

But when looking at the bigger picture, we aren’t seeing much in the way of defensive results with either of them on the court. Especially late in games.

Once again the Bucks allowed 30 points in the fourth quarter against the Hawks. In six of their past 14 games since the trade deadline, Milwaukee has allowed at least 30 points in the fourth quarter. Over that stretch, Milwaukee’s fourth quarter defensive rating is 119, while the Bucks fourth quarter offensive rating is 109.8.

For some reason, guys aren’t making the commitment on the defensive end. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they’re too focused on the offensive end to worry about defense. Maybe they just play bad defensive lineups with three guards too often. We cant’ say for sure. But we can say that Milwaukee’s defensive problems, specifically the fourth quarter problems, have quickly become an epidemic that need a cure.

I don’t know what that cure is. In listening to Boylan address the media after another frustrating game that slipped away late Sunday, I’m concerned he might not quite be willing to make the difficult moves he may need to down the stretch. Boylan seems like the ultimate player’s coach. He internalized much of the blame when his guys let a very winnable game slip away. He took the heat for missed box outs and foolish passes. Kudos to him for that.

But he’s got to be willing to make some changes to his late game rotation if guys are either unwilling or unable to play defense successfully, even if it comes at the expense of some of those guys putting up such beautiful offensive nights.

Categories: ROTATIONS!

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  1. Maybe it’s the looming free agency and guys are playing for their next contract / don’t care about this team.

  2. Skiles was willing to make the moves that didn’t exactly make him friends with the players. If he was still coaching, we’d probably see Jennings on the bench for important minutes much like when Ridnour was here to back him up and it’d probably wind up being a good thing.

  3. Frustrating thing about the Bucks this season:
    Good players but a poor mix.

    A true point guard would really help, as well
    as a forward who can create his own offense.
    Too many players with similar skill sets.

    Difficult to gauge attitudes of the players
    and the abilities of the coach. Things seem
    to be amiss. Maybe players are too focused
    on free agency. Maybe the coach is too focused
    on making the playoffs to sit Brandon and Monta
    when they are self-centered or irresponsible on
    the court.

    Maybe the coach is lacking in imagination regarding
    how he uses his players and what players he uses.
    For example, was there no way to influence Josh Smith
    to shoot from the outside or at least over someone
    rather than getting romps to the basket(maybe a zone)?
    Also, why can’t John Henson get 20 minutes per game?
    Are we going to overlook him like we did Tobias?

    Overall, an exasperating roller-coaster season with
    kind of a blah team. With each week, I’m getting
    more and more behind the idea of the Bucks pretty
    much starting over except for Larry and John.
    Otherwise, the future looks like a muddle of mediocrity!

    • P.S. Maybe I’m too hard on Monta and
      Brandon with the remark about them
      at times being self-centered and
      irresponsible. This is a hunch. I like
      both players, but I wonder if they
      have somewhat of a diva attitude: I’m
      too good to take direction and too
      important to take discipline. Hope
      I’m wrong. Rooting for both guys.

  4. happyfeethustle

    thanks again…for more Tobias talk. Taking a stance that the Bucks handled Tobias improperly is awfully arrogant- (unless you know something the rest of us dont?) Wow…ok- enough about that!

    Starting over with Larry and John- smoke some more cRaCK…cRAckheAd.

    Henson is talented, but far too THIN yet-he wont last long banging around every nite near the basket. Definitely would get injured – and end up on bench-(where he belongs….for now)! With patience,coaching, and BODY DEVELPOMENT he can earn a starting spot.

    My love for Larry’s game -and PASSION to win remains! Lets not overlook
    the emotional/psychological instability here…theres a problem. I hope Larry has not decided that his improved game will give him Dwight Howard respect fom officials. He is STILL Larry Sanders of the Bucks.
    He has clearly painted a H U G E target on his uniform. Other teams will take advantage of this issue. No official is going to let anything slide with him. This is a significant problem, that MUST be dealt with accordingly!

    I still stay POSITIVE

    Go BUCKS Go

    • The fun of the blog — at least for me —
      is to have debate and disagreements in a way
      that is, well, POSITIVE.

      I don’t think that it is arrogant to question
      the decision-making abilities of a team that has
      been mostly lousy for about 10 years. At present,
      I’m not all that enthusiastic about an 8th seed
      that is struggling to play .500 basketball. For
      all I know, half the players might be counting the
      days until they can get out of this sorry excuse
      for a team. All I see for the Bucks, unless there’s
      a shake-up of the roster and especially an overhaul
      of attitude, is prolonged mediocrity at best.

      Bucks fans deserve better!!! Of that I’m POSITIVE.

    • @happyfeet

      Henson don’t need to gain any weight, plenty of slender guys have made it work down low- Garnett and Kareem for example

      • @SillyBilly

        The difference is that those guys are tough. Garnett isn’t going to let someone back him down. You can make the same argument for Moute, the guy doesn’t have a lot of weight but he plays a lot stronger than his size.

        Henson looks a little soft, he wont be able to carve out a niche if he doesn’t at the very least hold his ground on D.

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  6. Hard to pinpoint what exactly the problem is and that’s probably because it’s not as simple as saying it’s all the fault of the point guard or forward or center or coach. Seems to me everyone is taking turns having bad games.

    In all fairness to this team, they are not so deep in talent that they can compete in the NBA without two of five starters. Their schedule is difficult and they need everyone’s help. I see a team that really wants to win and gets frustrated when they struggle. IMHO, they don’t need to all get fired…they need more help.

  7. The teams that play great team defense in the NBA have a coach and a team culture that believe in the importance of defensive intensity and how that intensity leads to easy buckets on the other end…. Heat, Spurs, Nuggets are great examples. Look at their points in the paint totals… Those are primarily transition points from defensive stops. The Bucks dont appear to share that defensive philosophy as a group….you can go through the motions and display proper technique, but its that passionate commitment on D that leads to stops, turnovers, and transition points. The Bucks are an excellent transition team…they just don’t give themselves enough opportunities. It’s like they don’t realize the relationship between their defensive success and offensive efficiency. George Karl used to say “the best offense is a great defense”. And that’s why to this day his teams average over 50 points in the paint each night… It STARTS on D.

  8. Thank you editor for having the balls to address the Milwaukee Bucks inadequate issues. The lack of competent coaching and (physical ) power forward is the key. No wonder Atlanta refuse to trade Josh Howard for Milwaukee ( garbage ) incomplete players…

  9. Josh Smiths stat line isn’t why we lost the game. Ilyasova doesn’t need to be benched.

  10. There are too many guards playing at much of the same time and not defending. Ellis and Jennings need to be guarding their man on defense and not losing him- this may be the time to bench them for a while and tell them why- whether its Miami or the Pacers its the same problem.
    The are undersized and to compensate by not allowing penetration or the open shooter- too many easy shots by good shooters. A good defense can be helped by a stable offense- moving the ball around and moving wiht out the appeal to creaste open looks, give and go, screen and roll, use of the post man-There is too much of a one on one scattered mentaily with them. The straw that breaks the camel’s back are the giveaways at the end, terrible shoots, turnovers, and losing the ball. I wonder how may games this season have been lost because of this. Last year’s team was better balanced even if they did not make the playoffs.

  11. amanwithantlers

    Nothing pains me more on the defensive end then when i have seen boylan run ellis, jennings, reddick, and dunleavy together in the game. WORST DEFENSIVE LINEUP OF ALL TIME. sure they might score but will they score more than there opponent when there out there? hell no.

    • Couldn’t agree more. That three guard lineup plus Dunleavy is like putting down landing lights for a plane. Jennings and Ellis are playing much more efficiently lately, but they really shouldn’t be playing 40+ minutes a game every game. Give those legs a break, and more shots will start falling, and less drives will be given away on D.