I'm not sure who could've predicted this Eastern Conference
On one side, the Milwaukee Bucks are seeing the fruits of their
switch-it-up labor. They've tinkered all year long in preparation
of this postseason. They mollywhopped the Miami Heat in round one.
They then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, before
snatching victory anyway in a seven-game slugfest against the
On the other side are the Atlanta Hawks, a team that didn't look
playoff bound midway through the season due to injuries, roster
instability, and coaching turmoil. The firing of Lloyd Pierce, and
the subsequent hiring of Nate McMillan, jumpstarted their
turnaround. They proved to be too prolific for the New York Knicks
in round one, and too resilient for the Philadelphia 76ers in round
And so, here we are. Two teams with unique (and oft-hated)
offensive engines. Two teams that have had a microscope on their
head coaching jobs for different reasons. Two teams that haven't
won a title in decades, both presented with the opportunity to make
I’m not a coach -- I'm just a pun-loving basketball fan with a
hankering for film breakdowns. But instead of a traditional series
preview, I decided to go into the basketball trenches and devise
gameplans for both teams. The tone of this piece will be a little
more informal, but it will still be informative (at least I
Without further ado, let's look at how the Atlanta Hawks will
try to stop the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kevin Huerter --> Jrue Holiday
Trae Young --> Pat Connaughton
Bogdan Bogdanovic --> Khris Middleton
Clint Capela --> Giannis Antetokounmpo
John Collins --> Brook Lopez
The Hawks have a decision to make with the frontcourt. Do you go
with Capela on Giannis to start, considering he's the most
physically equipped to deal with him? Or do you start with Collins
as an innings-eater of sorts, and have Capela roam off of Lopez to
muck things up if necessary?
I think I'd choose the former option, understanding the foul
trouble risks that come with it. Slowing Giannis down should be
priority number one. Not only is Capela better equipped to do that,
Collins does have solid weakside rim-protection chops. He's also
faster than Capela, so he should be able to help in the paint and
scoot out to Lopez on the perimeter with a little more
Top Priority on Defense: Make it a Half-court
If you look at the personnel for each team -- specifically, who
the stars are -- you'd likely think of the Hawks as a run-and-gun
squad, while the Bucks profile as a grind-it-out, beat-em-up
half-court. It's pretty much the opposite.
No team pushes more than the Bucks, with nearly 18% of their
possessions starting in transition, per Cleaning The Glass. While
Giannis is a battering ram in the half-court (more on that
shortly), he's at his best when long-striding in the open floor. He
drives the transition attack, figuratively and literally.
Giannis ranked in the 85th percentile when operating as the lead
ball-handler in transition; when filling the "trailer" role, that
bumped up to the 91st percentile per Synergy. There are few things
scarier in the NBA than that guy coming with a full head of
The proverbial "wall" has been talked about ad nauseam over the
past couple of (post)seasons, but it's imperative to get back and
cut off the middle of the floor. Making Giannis navigate in close
quarters is the best way to slow him down. He's nimble for his
size, but he isn't guard-level slithery.
Of course, it isn't just Giannis. Jrue
Holiday is not only good at pushing in transition, he adds value as
an early seal threat. He's a big man in a guard's body in that way,
willing to leak out early and either put smaller defenders on his
hip, or to lurk around the dunker spot for dump-offs.
It may not be safe to play the offensive rebound game; getting
back and cutting off easy opportunies should be of higher
Bucks' Team Stats (and Milwaukee's stats vs.
- Offensive Rating: 116.5, 5th (119.3)
- Half-Court Offensive Rating: 102.0, 6th
- True Shooting Percentage: 59.3, 5th
- Assist Percentage: 56.9, 25th (57.0)
- Turnover Rate: 13.4, 13th (12.8)
- Pace: 102.85, 2nd (98.67)
- Free-Throw Attempts: 21.4, 16th (21.3)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 76.0, 23rd (81.3)
- Three-Point Attempts: 37.1, 8th (34.0)
- Three-Point Percentage: 38.9, 5th (33.3)
- Offensive Rebounds: 10.3, 12th (11.3)
Bucks' Play Type Breakdown
Defending Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis is one of the most dominant rim threats the NBA has ever
seen. He's been a monster this postseason, averaging [checks notes]
29-14-5. Okay then.
He wasn't superhuman during the regular-season series, but still
scored efficiently (24.3 points, 67.8 TS) and owned the interior (84.6% on 8.7
He's been working on counters all season long. Some of that is
quicker decision-making -- the passes on drives are coming a beat
earlier than last season, for example. Some of that is adding to
the shot repertoire. Post hooks, step-in middies, and turnarounds
are all shots he has shown more comfort getting to.
There's no way to stop this guy. Slowing him
down, and hoping his extremely poor luck from the free throw line
(48.3% vs the Nets, 53.8% overall) carries over, will go a long way
to swinging the series.
Major Key: Crowd the Paint
The same principles that apply in transition -- taking away the
middle, being active with your hands on the drive -- also apply in
Giannis attempting to add half-court counters to his game is
fine. Ultimately, his primary method of attack can be devastating
enough to render those counters useless.
It's hard to overstate just how strong this dude is. He has no
issue doing his work early, putting a guy on his hip and setting up
shop on either block. His backdowns create genuine space. Once he
gets to the restricted area, you're pretty much dead. He'll nudge
you off-balance with fakes or, if they don't work, simply extend
his never-ending arms to get a good look.
That's not a bad rep from Danilo Gallinari, who actually bumps
Giannis off his spot on the catch. Three dribbles and a head fake
later, Giannis is taking a shot two-and-a-half feet from the
basket, if that. That's how tough it's going to be.
The key to hindering Giannis in the half-court is doing your
homework early. Building the "wall" is an easy example,
particularly when he's isolating above the break. When he isn't at
the center of the court, pinching in early will be necessary to
making him work.
Wing isolations or post-ups should look like this.
It's not a hard double from Capela, but he's pulling in early
from one pass away. He's trusting that he can get out to Bobby
Portis for a contest if necessary. Brandon Goodwin is at the nail.
Lou Williams has his toe at the edge of the paint. The only place
Giannis can go is to the baseline.
Giannis won't always settle for that -- you saw what he did in
the clip against Gallinari -- but you bump up the odds of him
settling if you restrict his space.
As far as actual doubles, timeliness will be key. He's no Nikola
Jokic, but he's also a step above Joel Embiid as a passer in terms
of ability and willingness. The Bucks generated nearly 1.3 points
per possession when Giannis passed out of a post double this
season, per Second Spectrum.
Show the hand too early, and he'll make the right play.
If you're able to blindside him a bit, wait for him to begin his
move or get into his gather, you may be able to fluster him. Take
this rep for example.
Bogdan Bogdanovic comes over to the right elbow once Giannis
starts his post-up, but doesn't commit until he drives to the
baseline. As that happens, Capela pulls in to cut off the dump-off
pass to Portis. Behind that, Williams sinks down to the opposite
baseline to take away a potential kick to the corner.
This is the blueprint.
As a bonus: whenever Giannis is starting a post-up or an
isolation with a lefty drive, make sure there's someone ready to
pinch in to the middle of the floor. The left-to-right spin is his
go-to move in close quarters (while the eurostep is more of a
As another bonus: if you're going to pinch in to bother the
spin, fully commit to that sucker.
Bogdanovic doesn't sink quickly enough, nor does he reach in
with any fervor. This is one heck of a move by Giannis, but it's
still a help-defense failure.
Can't have that.
Defending the Shooters (Perimeter)
Jrue Holiday: soft close-out
- Holiday is coming off the best three-point shooting season of
his career (39.2% on 4.8 attempts), though he's cooled off
considerably in the postseason (24.6% on 5.5 attempts). He's solid
with his feet set so you don't want to completely ignore him
off-ball, but alarm bells shouldn't be ringing if someone kicks it
out to him.
Bryn Forbes: hard close-out
- Forbes is Milwaukee's best shooter, able to drill set shots,
fly off screens, pull off of dribble handoffs, or relocate when
chaos is happening elsewhere. He's also not a strong playmaker at
all, and only took 25 shots at the rim in half-court situations
during the regular season, per Synergy. Run him off the line, deal
with the rest later.
Pat Connaughton: soft close-out
- Connaughton is a solid shooter (37.1% on 3.9 attempts this
season, 35% on 3.6 attempts during the postseason). He's good at
finding creases off the ball, particularly sneaking down to the
corner on drives. Keep an eye out for him, but he isn't worth
selling out against. He's not that level of
Khris Middleton: hard, but controlled close-out
- If Forbes takes the top shooter billing, Middleton is a close
second -- especially once you factor in how much he self-creates.
You don't want him getting clean looks on the perimeter, though
with his release point, contests only mean so much. He ranked in
the 68th percentile on "guarded" catch-and-shoot looks, per
Synergy. Still, try to get him off the three-point line and stay
attached to him. Live with the contested pull-up twos.
Defending the Shooters (Frontcourt)
PJ Tucker: Let him fire above the break, soft close-out in the
- Tucker has shot 36.6% from deep on moderate volume over the
last four seasons. The kicker: a whopping 72.2% of those threes
have come from the corner. He's made those at a respectable 38.6%
clip. But considering how open those shots have been, it's a bit
underwhelming. Tucker doesn't have a particularly quick release,
and he's prone to streakiness. Make him think when he's in the
corner, but ignoring him elsewhere should be fine.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: Let him fire
- The Other Antetokounmpo likely won't have a sizeable role in
this series, but his jumper is nothing to be afraid of. Well,
except for that one game against the Knicks.
Brook Lopez: Soft close-out
- Lopez has a high, but slow release on the jumper. As long as
you don't cheat too far off of him, a balance can be struck between
crowding the paint and getting out to the big fella. He doesn't
mind driving -- really, slow-grinding -- a sloppy close-out.
Discipline will be key here, especially from the corners.
Bobby Portis: hard, but controlled close-out
- Running Portis off the line isn't an admission of elite
shooting, though he is good (39.1% over the past four seasons).
It's more of a tendency play; he's not a threatening passer on the
move, and he may still take a tough shot anyway.
X-Factor: Jrue Holiday
Beyond Giannis, Holiday may be the most important Buck in this
He'll have to hound Trae Young for a majority of his minutes on
the defensive end. I don't have to explain why that's important. If
the Bucks come out in a deep drop, Young may need to dig into the
foul-drawing bag to get Holiday out of there.
Don't sleep on Holiday's offensive importance either. Unlike 6'8
Khris Middleton, Holiday likely won't be at a size advantage
against whoever defends him (likely Kevin Huerter). He'll be needed
as a genuine shot creator, particularly when Giannis is off the
Holiday can do it; he generated 1.07 points
per possession on isolations during the regular-season series, per
InStat tracking data. It's always a risky proposition once Holiday
gets into his pull-up bag, but it adds another dimension to his,
and the Bucks', attack when he has it rolling.
Frankly, dare him to knock down isolation pull-ups. Duck under
picks against him and make him drain threes off the bounce. What
you don't want is Holiday getting downhill consistently and
finishing, making kick-outs, or drawing fouls himself.
Check out Nekias' breakdown of how
the Bucks should defend the Hawks.