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In Part I of my manifesto for the playoff Bulls preparation, we cover the defense. Here is Part II on the offensive side of the ball.
Defending elite teams is about picking the lesser of two evils. In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s loading up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and letting Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Bucks beat you. Or vice versa.
Unfortunately, even that is hard to do against the Bucks.
Looking back into the film against the Bucks from the season series, the Bulls tried both approaches. I think it’s most fruitful to focus most on the games while they were competitive and how things unraveled.
Who takes on Giannis responsibilities?
Guarding Antetokounmpo is not a one-man job. In the first game, the Bulls strategy was to wall off the paint, preventing Antetokounmpo from getting to the rim.
The Bulls had more success getting into his airspace than backing off him to wall off the paint. Caruso did an exceptional job on Antetokounmpo the two times they played together, gaining leverage on him to prevent backdowns and using quick hands to make dribbling hard.
The Bulls will throw various defenders at him, but Caruso should get heavy minutes on Antetokounmpo. He’ll need to be careful about getting into foul trouble.
If crowding his space proves to be successful, Javonte Green could earn some minutes. He was fantastic in his early minutes of the March 22 matchup by testing Antetkounmpo’s handle.
Patrick Williams will end up with the lion’s share of minutes against Antetokounmpo. He acquitted himself well in early minutes on March 22. Williams has the sturdiness to force some fadeaway jumpers, but he really struggles to get over screens.
If the Bucks put Williams in pick-and-roll, the Bulls are in trouble. The Bulls defense is somewhat of a paper tiger that overly relies on the ability to stay connected on screens to avoid advantage scenarios.
Williams gets stuck on the screen here and it forces Coby White to switch onto Antetokounmpo. For some reason, he passed out of it — even Dave Pasch was surprised. That’s a matchup I want to stay far, far away from.
Williams will have is work cut out for him, as would anyone taking on this challenge, but he might be the most physically equipped to try.
The Tristan and Vucevic combo doesn’t work
Billy Donovan has used Tristan Thompson alongside Nikola Vucevic in almost every Bulls-Bucks matchup this season. He thinks Thompson has the size to defend Antetokounmpo. While there is some truth there, it hasn’t worked in practice.
Size is one thing, but Thompson doesn’t have the footspeed to bother Antetokounmpo. Backing off him allows a runway to hoop that causes help to collapse and leaves shooters open.
The cascade effect here is that Vucevic left guarding Bobby Portis who toasted him running off pindowns and slipping screens. Vucevic is not able to defend on the perimeter like this.
If you still need convincing…
Picking your poison
Of course, loading up on Antetokounmpo and packing the paint comes with a tradeoff. If the Bulls pack the paint, they are leaving more space for the Bucks surrounding shooters, who are some of the best in the league.
Looking at the Bucks shot profile, they shoot nearly 40 percent on corner threes and 36 percent above the break, both of which are top-10 numbers in the league. Leaving them open to shoot is a horrifying proposition, but one they may have to make against a team with a wrecking ball like Antetokoumpo.
In the first two matchups, that strategy worked — the Bucks only made 6/31 and 10/38 three-point attempts, respectively. Less so in the final two games of the season series — Milwaukee made 12/28 and 12/35.
Despite what they’ve done over the past month and a half, the Bulls defend the three point line well. If their rotations are quick enough out of double teams, they can make life difficult on a team that relies heavily on those reversal threes.
The Bulls have had moments. They just need to string them together.
Easier said than done, but….
Stay connected in transition
Milwaukee is sixth in transition frequency and loves to run off of misses. The Bulls can’t let their communication problems beat them in the form of easy points in transition.
Luckily, the Bulls are the best in the league at limiting transition. They don’t turn the ball over and they don’t offensive rebound which means they’re always in position to get back. There is an inherent tradeoff where attacking the offensive glass puts you in position to bleed transition points. This is another great reason to leave Thompson on the sideline; they need to get back on defense.
DO. NOT. FOUL. THREE. POINT. SHOOTERS.
The Bulls are 20th in the NBA in opponent free throw attempt rate and 25th since the All-Star Break. A lot of this can be explained by the complete collapse in defensive rotations, which will need to be at an all-time best for the Bulls to compete.
The foul by Coby White in the first quarter was the pivotal play of this game. The Bucks got three free throws that kickstarted a 13-0 run that the Bulls couldn’t come back from. They need to eliminate these kinds of error and not beat themselves when they’re already at a disadvantage.
Caruso is prone to over-fouling, so the Bulls have to be careful not to pick up any dumb shooting fouls. Their lack of depth is already a problem and fouling shooters will could hamper it further.
Don’t beat yourself
The Bucks are a better team than the Bulls. For the Bulls to have a chance, they’ll need to out-execute and that means not letting mistakes kill you.
One of the Bulls problems of late is defensive rebounding. That means everyone needs to box out. Because LaVine fails to do so, he puts the rest of the team in a bad position. Thompson and Vucevic get distracted and remove themselves from the play and everyone looks bad.
These things happen. This is an egregious example, but it’s symbolic of the fact that the Bulls need to win the battle of the little things. They can’t let one mistake turn into two. They need to give themselves a chance by being mentally tough enough to shut off runs and problem solve in real time.
Go down swinging
The Bulls are at a disadvantage in just about every facet. Experience. Defense. Depth. Versatility. Shooting. Best player. Best defender. They can’t just let the game happen to them. They need to get going on the offensive and force the Bucks to adjust to them.
To that end, the Bulls should get as creative as possible. Try weaponizing a 2-3 zone and a box-and-1 against the Bucks. If the goal is to load up on Antetokounmpo, clog driving lanes and still being able to contest shooters, this might work. The Bucks are sixth in the NBA in scoring against zone, but it’s a small sample size. Zone exposes the Bulls to getting beaten by the Bucks ball movement and three-point shooting, but it can at least be an effective curveball.
If the Bulls look to try zone, Derrick Jones Jr. has the length and speed to be successful. He also has the length to bother Middleton if the Bulls want to put Alex Caruso on Antetokounmpo. Not to mention the added benefit of being able to get out on the break.
The Bulls wings are small across the board, but are all capable of defending up a position. They tried some switching at the point of the screen against Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday and that could be something we see at times in the series.
The Bucks are an incredible team, but the Bulls have some weapons to slow them down. They’ll need to test the limits of their identity and get weird to have a chance, but with nothing to lose, why not go down swinging?
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