The Milwaukee Bucks survived Thursday, if not just barely. In Game 3 of their second round series against the Brooklyn Nets, they built a 30-9 lead in the first 10 and a half minutes and then scored just three points in the next nine minutes. It was their least effective offensive game in the series – they scored 89.6 points per game. 100 possessions – but the 86-83 victory counts the same as the Nets’ 125-86 thrashing in Game 2.
“It doesn’t matter how you do it at this time of year,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You just have to find a way to get it done.”
Budenholzer accurately described the game as a slug party. For more than four minutes in the fourth quarter, the score was a 76-76 draw, with two of the best teams in the NBA sounding jumpers. Milwaukee finally broke into a draw when Khris Middleton hit his patented pull-up and stepped into a clean, mid-range look from a ball screen from Giannis Antetokounmpo:
The Middleton-Antetokounmpo screen is part of the Bucks’ offense, and they’ve been going for it more than ever this season. They did not get much out of it in the first two games of the series, and it did not work every time they went for it in Game 3, but it is precisely the type of action that each team must be able to turn to in difficult situations.
“I could see what they were trying to give me,” Middleton said. “I was just trying to take advantage of it. I feel like I can score in a lot of different ways. These shots, it’s the type of shots they want me to take. And I’m confident. I think I’m “Good enough, I worked hard on these shots to knock them down. And it went downhill for me tonight.”
Middleton knew Antetokounmpo’s defender Blake Griffin would be in drop coverage. While Brooklyn spent most of the season switching almost every screen, it treats Antetokounmpo differently. Antetokounmpo is not a threat to jump out to the perimeter, and the nets would rather not give him an advantage by putting a minor defender on him. That means there is room for Middleton to quickly get to his pull-up or to get his defender on his hip and make a play.
At the Barclays Center in January, Middleton missed a 3-pointer in the corner that would have hit the nets. He had this opportunity in part because he hit two pull-ups in crunch time, both of which came out of Antetokonmpo ball screens, with DeAndre Jordan in a deep fall.
Middleton scored the clutch in the same way in Milwaukee five weeks ago, where Griffin defended the ball screen, though I’m still not sure if it was meant to be a float or a lob:
If the Bucks do not resolve their ugly offense soon, Antetokounmpo will certainly get a lot of the blame, especially for his poor shots from 3-point range (1-for-8 in Game 3, 3-for-16 in the series, 4-for- 32 in the playoffs) and the free throw line (4-for-9 in play 3, 6-on-19 in the series, 27-for-52 in the playoffs). In his honor, however, Antetokounmpo has become more of a screen-setter this season, allowing Middleton and Jrue Holiday to play. Holiday has yet to find its rhythm against Brooklyn, but Middleton broke out with a battle-high 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting Thursday. Milwaukee needs more of that. (And yes, it needs fewer 3-point attempts from Antetokounmpo.)
Nets’ strategy against Antetokounmpo’s ball screens has mostly been effective. The Bucks turned it around twice early in the fourth quarter with Middleton as the ball dealer, and Griffin stopped Antetokounmpo at the edge at the last minute with Holiday as the ball dealer. Brooklyn does not have a reputation as a disruptive defensive team, but Bruce Brown and Joe Harris are fighting for screens and there is always an assistant defender at the nail.
Milwaukee can not say it has found out Brooklyn’s defense, not even close, but it can continue to put Griffin in pick-and-rolls and strengthen Middleton and Holiday. Take advantage of the space that Nets is handing over and they will at least have to think about changing the coverage. If there is a lesson from Middleton’s pull-up to break the tie, it’s a good thing when he makes quick decisions. He chased the shot instead of settling for it.