Milwaukee Bucks defense set to top Bulls in first-round playoffs

The Milwaukee Bucks relied on defense to lead them to an NBA championship a year ago, and they likely will again in their first-round playoff game against the Chicago Bulls.

It’s not like their offense should have much trouble scoring against a team that doesn’t have an elite defenseman outside of Alex Caruso and ranked 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s more about what Milwaukee brings to the table when it defends its hoop and how it compares to Chicago.

After shutting down the NBA for the first two years at the helm of head coach Mike Budenholzer — ranking second and first in defensive efficiency, respectively — the Bucks have taken a step back the past two years and finished the 2021 campaign. -22 at 14th rank according to Cleaning the glass. Their defensive rating of 112.0 was on par with what they experienced last year as they battled a plethora of injuries and experimented with different types of coverage.

Luckily, they should be able to get back on track with their health back and a friendly against the Bulls.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ defense should be able to lead them to an easy first-round playoff win over the Chicago Bulls.

Since the 2018-19 season, when Budenholzer took over, Milwaukee has put the paint defense at the top of its priority list. They do whatever it takes to make sure opponents don’t get easy baskets on the rim, even if that includes over-assisting and allowing a record 40.6 three-point attempts per game.

Although the Bulls are an accurate three-point shooting team, they are hesitant to shoot far from deep — coming in last with just 28.8 three-point shooting average per game. That should play right into the Bucks’ hands, as they’ll wall the paint and force the Bulls to shoot deep.

DeMar DeRozan has had a fantastic year and is Chicago’s best player. The Bulls will run their offense through him, and Milwaukee will do their best to keep him off balance and uncomfortable. If the regular season is any indicator, part of their strategy will be to shift all of their defense to midfield when he has the ball.

As Nikola Vucevic sets a high-ball screen near the top of the sideline, Brook Lopez sinks into his infamous drop cover, preventing DeRozan from reaching his beloved midrange. Meanwhile, Wesley Matthews battles across the screen as Jrue Holiday also slides off his man on the opposite wing to wall off the free-throw line. Similar to the walls that have been used against Giannis Antetokounmpo over the years, Milwaukee want to create a barrier for DeRozan – only they will have to do it at the free throw line and above.

Behind the action at the top of the key, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis also pinch the way as they slip on each of the blocks as a last line of defense. That leaves several Bulls shooters open, which is exactly what Milwaukee wants.

Ayo Dosunmu (number 12) only achieved 38.4% of his 2.3 catches and shots per game last season. To put that into perspective, this ranked 79th among NBA players who made at least that many attempts per game in 2021-22. Alex Caruso was even worse, as he only connected on 35.6% of those attempts. These are the types of guys Milwaukee wants to fire.

Milwaukee was able to sweep the season streak against the Bulls, thanks in part to their ability to completely prevent Chicago from getting close to the edge. In fact, the Bucks actually did pretty well overall in keeping the Bulls off the three-point line as well. Don’t be surprised to see Lopez, Antetokounmpo and the rest of the off-ball defenders move away from their man to prevent DeRozan and Zach LaVine from getting to their places on the field.

Which brings us back to DeRozan. He’s had big scores against the Bucks this season, averaging 31.3 points per game. However, it took him a lot of minutes (37.6 per game) and shots to get there. He made just 47.4% of his field goal attempts against them this season, which was 11th lowest and 3 percentage points below his regular season average.

Milwaukee also has a number of capable bodies they can throw at him that can adequately defend him and give him different looks throughout the series. Wesley Matthews will almost certainly be given the go-ahead to go once again and will only be tasked with harassing him during his time on the pitch. Matthews has a good balance of strength, size and basketball IQ to make life difficult for DeRozan for 20 minutes per game.

There will, however, be plenty of time when Matthews is on the bench and DeRozan is on the field. It is then that Jrue Holiday, mainly, and Khris Middleton, secondarily, can intervene. Holiday is the Bucks’ best perimeter defenseman and they’ll likely save him for big moments down the stretch.

Regardless of who is on DeRozan, the Bucks will continue to take a team approach to stopping him and his teammates. Take a look at the image below where three Bucks defensive assists slide to the paint as DeRozan and Vucevic lead a two-man game down the right wing.

The Bucks haven’t been able to live up to their usual defensive standards throughout the regular season, but they have all the tools they need to stop the Bulls in their first-round playoff series and return to elite status.

With Lopez, Antetokounmpo, and Holiday locked up, don’t be surprised to see this series end in a quick and brutal fashion.

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