I still recall the Los Angeles Lakers coming into Milwaukee in the winter of 2009. In the calm before the Fear the Deer storm, the Bucks were just an average team with a possibly good point guard, hardly any size and absolutely no athleticism.
But the Lakers? With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, they seemed to have the market cornered on size. But with Gasol and Odom it wasn’t like they only had plodding big men. They had a mix of athleticism, finesse and size that was intriguing. They went on to win the NBA title that season.
A few months later the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Larry Sanders. John Hammond talked extensively about needing to inject more athleticism and length into the front court and Sanders was the solution. The Bucks hadn’t had an athlete like Sanders in some time, especially not up front.
They haven’t stopped collecting guys like him since.
Giannis Antetokounmpo gets a lot of attention. He’s where most people start. But when casual observers move on from him and see John Henson, Michael Carter-Williams and even Khris Middleton, they usually come away noticing the Milwaukee Bucks penchant for acquiring lengthy, mobile defenders.
Up to this point, the visual peak of Milwaukee’s approach may have actually come before last season. Remember this photo?
It practically became the stuff of legend in the Bucks fan community last year. Look at those three guys. Who would be able to score on them when they were in the game? Teams were probably just going to give up rather than face that back line. After this photo kind of became a thing, you could hardly have a conversation about the Bucks with someone who actively followed the team without them discussing the team’s incredible length.
Alas, the dream was deferred and eventually, abandoned – in that form at least. Larry Sanders, John Henson and Giannis Antetkounmpo never took the floor at the same time for the Milwaukee Bucks. But that doesn’t mean the Bucks stopped believing that a defense full of long-limbed defenders could have a great impact.
#Bucks had 11 blocks in the game as a team tonight, which is the most they’ve had in a playoff game in 14 years (2001).
— Patrick Stumpf (@PCSAutomatic) April 28, 2015
The team hasn’t pigeonholed itself tough. They still have great length at a variety of positions, but they also have this guy:
The Bucks are weird.
Weirdness aside, it was their length that was pretty powerful Monday night.
Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are incredible players. While mid-flight, they can contort themselves into shapes that seems impossible and create angles for shots that should never have seen the light of day. They finished one tough layup after the next over the first four games of the series. But some of those improbable finishes were bound to even out if the Bucks were just able to keep making life tough for Chicago’s terrific guard tandem. And finally we saw in the fourth quarter Monday night that even Butler and Rose were human around the rim.
They kept on attacking, as they had been doing all series. And as the Bucks had been doing all series (well, maybe with the exception of game one), they kept trying to stay in front and keep hands in the face of each guard. Milwaukee wasn’t just relying on a big man to come over and challenge shots once Rose and Butler got into the paint, rather the Bucks relied on their sizable perimeter defenders to bother the slashing guards whenever they got an attempt inside.
And bother them they did. Rose and Butler combined to shoot just 4-16 FG in the fourth quarter.
Henson was a factor on a few occasions. He kept himself straight up here once Butler got by his first defender. He went for the block, but he didn’t follow through and just ended up redirecting the shot. Butler had been finishing over and through contact with regularity the first few games of the series, but it would have been almost otherworldly if he kept scoring right over a shot-blocker like Henson without issue.
Giannis ensuring victory by helping over onto a driving Derrick Rose is the sort of thing that doesn’t shock or surprise anymore. Giannis is often putting himself in the right place and making the right play when he gets there. This series alone he’s had two or three blocks that have been incredible, including the one above.
But Rose wasn’t only dealing with Giannis. You’ll see a left hand in the air right behind Antetokounmpo. That’s John Henson. Rose drove into the lane with the 6-foot-6 MCW on his hip and ran into Henson and Giannis. If one didn’t get him, the other almost had to. That’s just science.
Before Rose ran into Milwaukee’s defense, it was again Butler who drove into the paint. Henson was pulled out by Pau Gasol, so he was no threat this time, but MCW helped over off Tony Snell and the combination of MCW and Giannis forced Butler to alter his shot, resulting in a harmless missed layup and a Bucks rebound.
Again, the Bucks aren’t just relying on a big man at the back of the defense to challenge shots. Their length gives a number of players the ability to get quality contests around the rim, which can result in nights like Monday, in which the Bulls made just 39.1% of their shots within five feet of the rim. Against the Bulls, with guards like Rose and Butler, contesting shots in the paint is absolutely crucial to Milwaukee’s success.
One tenet the Bucks have been assembling this roster around for the last five years had paid off handsomely on Monday night. Henson, Giannis and MCW helped actualize the vision John Hammond had what feels like a lifetime ago when he was watching Scott Skiles make do with Hakim Warrick and Charlie Bell.