At the end of Wednesday’s first overtime, Brandon Knight made an incredible, unforgettable play — a play witnessed, both live and through replay, by millions of people.
Brandon Knight made a steal.
Starting with about 5 seconds left, Knight read Joe Johnson‘s eyes perfectly, stepped into his passing lane, and took off in the other direction with the ball and the hopes of his suddenly resurgent team.
OH SURE, he gagged on a time-crunched layup and that’s what EVERYONE will remember. However, the setup that led to the steal serves as a perfect example of what head coach Jason Kidd and defensive specialist coach Sean Sweeney want to get out of their defense, specifically his pick-and-roll defense.
Milwaukee’s fundamental strategy when defending the pick and roll is to send both defenders at the ballhandler if the pick makes contact. The tactic relies on a third defender coming over to guard the roll man, and it leaves the Bucks vulnerable to an open shooter out on the wing waiting for a pass, or more likely, the pass after the pass. At that point, it relies on Milwaukee to rotate and rotate hard. Simply, the tactic relies on defenders trusting each other. At least that’s how O.J. Mayo explains it.
“You’re going to have nights where there may be a guy that’s better than you,” Mayo said recently. “But we don’t think one guy is better than five guys, you know what I mean? So, with that being said, our job is to go out and trust one another with energy and effort, trust that someone is going to be there if I do get beat and someone else steps up and someone else will be there for him and it’s just a big chain reaction.”
Mayo went on.
“You’ve got to give hats off to the coaching staff,” he said. “Coach Sweeney, there’s not an hour you can come to this gym, in a 24 hour day and don’t catch him here watching film, catch him here trying to get better, trying to get us better. We trust him as well as he trusts us. We’re trying to go out and execute our defensive plan.”
So, just what is that game plan?
Stop #1: Shrinking the passing lanes
More often than not, though, the Bucks are getting good things out of this high-pressure defense. Consider Knight’s steal.
Here we have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zaza Pachulia defending a pick and roll being run by Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Both Pachulia and Antetokounmpo are going to go with Johnson, with Pachulia tasked with the job of slowing Johnson until Giannis can free himself from the pick and catch up.
The scheme counts on O.J. Mayo leaving his man and stepping up to take Lopez out of the play. That leaves Bojan Bogdanovic open in the left corner — but it’s going to be difficult to get the ball to him. Kidd’s plan counts on that fact.
At this point, Antetokounmpo and his 7’6″ wingspan come into play. Johnson may want to get the ball out to Bogdanovic on the left side, but he either has to contend with Giannis’ massive reach and throw a super high pass, or throw an uncomfortably long bounce pass. Neither is an attractive option. Knight and Parker are staying with their assignments on the strong side of the play, and Johnson probably picks the best option — Lopez in the lane — but doesn’t account for the fact that Knight has read his eyes the whole way.
By the time Johnson gets the pass off, Antetokounmpo and Knight have their arms up, and the passing window for Johnson is dangerously small. That’s another thing you notice about the Bucks and Kidd. Watch him on the sidelines. Notice how often he’s raising his hands. He’s almost willing his guys to keep their arms up.
Pachulia is there too, and if you want to picture the potential that the Bucks have to be a truly smothering team, picture Larry Sanders replacing Zaza in your mind’s eye. It helps explain Kidd’s insistence on high hands.
Here’s the play in its entirety, including the much maligned layup miss.
Stop #2: When the ball almost gets to the weak side soon enough
The key to Kidd’s defensive approach in these situations is the aggression with which his defenses are designed to attack the ball carrier. The ideal situation is a hard show — one which may or may not turn into a full trap — a player rotating down to stop the rolling big man, and (if needed) one or more rotations to help the helpers.
It’s full attack mode toward the ball. The shaky passes it creates are the reason the Bucks lead the NBA with 110 steals.
With all of that having been said, it is not a perfect scheme. Here is what it (sort of) looks like when teams get the ball to the open man.
Here, Giannis bumps his leg on the pick and gets taken out of the play for the most part. The Nets make two passes to get the ball to the open man.
Fortunately, for the Bucks, Jabari does a terrific job with the hard show, and his aggression forces a slow first pass to Deron Williams, giving O.J. Mayo enough time to switch and jump out and contest the shooter.
Stop #3: Not forcing the help when it’s unwarranted
Another wrinkle that paid dividends is shown here. Again, it all starts with two men pressuring the ball, but on this play the Bucks have zero compulsion in bringing the third defender in to stop the screener.
Why? Because it’s 7’1″ Brook Lopez trying to create a play using his dribble 23 feet from the hoop. Briefly outnumbered 4 to 3, the remaining Bucks defenders smartly laid back and waited for the play to come to them.
Stop #4: A quick turnover (from Monday against the Miami Heat)
In the second half of their game Monday, the Bucks put a stranglehold on the Miami Heat offense. In the third quarter alone, the Heat made 4-of-19 shots and turned the ball over 7 times. The pressure on the ball was tight, and the rotations behind it was half a step quicker than it had been all season long.
Sometimes sending two defenders at the ball forces a turnover all by itself. It doesn’t need to wait for a soft pass or a bad decision.
On this play, Jabari steps to the high side of the screen and pokes it away from Shabazz Napier. Brandon Knight gladly collects it from the other side. The bonus of these turnovers is that it helps the Bucks survive their own stagnant offense.
Stop #5: Forcing high passes
Here is a another play that shows the Bucks’ pick-and-roll defense on a play where Mario Chalmers tries to drive toward the basket.
Khris Middleton and Larry Sanders are the defenders trying to stop the Chalmers/Chris Bosh duo. Giannis Antetokounmpo lies in wait, ready to help because it’s his job to be the third man in the play stopping Bosh as he rolls.
At this point, Khris Middleton has blown a tire.
Antetokounmpo has to hesitate for a moment to keep an eye on Luol Deng (top right), but the chances of Chalmers attempting that pass with his left hand are slim. Sanders waits in the ready position, primed to do what he can to nix a pass to Bosh.
Knight has Norris Cole (bottom left) sealed off well; one could say the same of Jabari Parker on Shawne Williams in the opposite corner. Bosh is there, but there is too much busyness between him and Chalmers at this point.
The open man is Deng, but Deng is so far away from the action to be useful. And that’s what lies at the crux of what the Bucks want to do: create pressure at the expense of leaving someone open, but leave the right guy open.
Chalmers opts for the pass to Williams, but Jabari Parker sits exactly halfway between the two Miami players.
To get the ball around Parker, Chalmers has to put the pass high and Williams steps out of bounds trying to corral it.
Stop #6: Forcing an even higher pass
Below is a similar play being run in the opposite direction. Once the pick and roll gets going, Deng is the open man in the corner in the weak side.
To get the ball to the Deng, you have to throw a cross court pass over Giannis Antetokounmpo, that lanky 6’11” guy with the 7’6″ wingspan. If you’re Chalmers, how high do you throw it?
The answer? Very high. High enough that Deng has to go airborne to get it. The extra fraction of a second that it takes to corral the pass gives Giannis a chance to close out well on a shot that Deng missed.
How far has the defense evolved over last year’s team?
The results have been startling:
Last year, coach Larry Drew was content to sit back and collapse his defense into the paint. The Bucks sure as heck weren’t going to get beaten by teams in the low post, but at what expense? Doubling down low made them a historically bad three-point defense in the Era of the Three-Point Shot.
This year, coach Jason Kidd has installed a defense focused on perimeter pressure. There may be three-point shots available, but they’re only there for a moment or two, and only after a difficult passing sequence.
Giannis and his long-armed friends are making the basketball court look very small indeed.