The Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA Finals. They lost Game 1 to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, 118-105, but despite the loss, they showed some good indicators. Most importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo, playing on a recently hyperextended left knee, had 20 points and 17 rebounds, giving a strong impression that he’s healthy enough to make an impact in this series. Things could be a whole lot worse.
Any run to the Finals is impressive. A run to the Finals amid a pandemic that upended the NBA’s calendar and forced players to endure a compressed schedule is even more so. But the Bucks getting here is a little extra impressive because they’re pretty bad at one of basketball’s most important skills: shooting the ball.
Throughout the playoffs, the Bucks have laid brick after brick.
Of course, “shooting” technically applies to any kind of basketball shot. What the Bucks have been terrible at is shooting more than a few feet away from the hoop—jump shots of all kinds, basically, as well as free throws, the easiest shots in basketball.
It wasn’t always this way. During the regular season, the Bucks made 41.3 percent of their pull-up field goals, according to the NBA’s shot-tracking. That doesn’t sound great, but it was the fourth-best mark in the league. They were also solid on catch-and-shoot looks, making 40.1 percent of them, the eighth-best mark in the NBA. On the kinds of shots that are typically the same jumpers you might practice in the gym, the Bucks were one of the league’s better teams. They made 38.9 percent of their three-pointers, the No. 4 mark in the NBA.
In the playoffs, those stats have dived. The Bucks’ pull-up field goal percentage has fallen to 34.2 (fourth-worst in the NBA), and their catch-and-shoot percentage has dropped to 35.3 (also fourth-worst). That has translated to the Bucks being horrendous on three-pointers, where they are shooting 31.9 percent in the postseason. That’s third-worst in the league, and worst among teams that advanced past the first round.
It doesn’t seem to matter if the player with the ball is wide open. On shots where there’s no defender within six feet of the Bucks shooter, the team is averaging 34 percent, second-worst in the league.
It hasn’t helped that guard Donte DiVincenzo, one of the team’s better long-range shooters, has missed most of the playoffs with an injury. But for the most part, the Bucks are making significantly fewer shots than they did across a 72-game regular season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ best player—and a big factor in the team’s lackluster shooting stats.
In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo has taken about 20 shots per game. About 13 come from inside 10 feet, and he makes about nine of those. Antetokounmpo is a star in the post, and he has a preternatural ability to put his head down, drive to the basket, and score. But Antetokounmpo’s field goal percentage drops from 70 percent inside 10 feet to just 30 percent on pull-ups, of which he attempts an average of seven per game.
It’s not just field goals. In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo has made 72 of 133 free throws, an abysmal 54.1 percent. He’s helped drag the Bucks’ team-wide free throw percentage from an already shaky 76 percent in the regular season (23rd in the NBA) to 70.6 in the playoffs (15th of 16 playoff teams).
The Bucks have overcome their jump-shooting woes by bullying teams near the basket, dominating in transition, and playing stingy defense.
Yes, Milwaukee has been lousy on pull-up and catch-and-shoot chances. But neither is their main source of offense. The NBA classifies shots from the field as either pull-up, catch-and-shoot, or “inside 10 feet,” and the latter is where the Bucks take a plurality of their attempts: 40.7 percent of them in the playoffs. And they’re making a lot of those—62.4 percent, to be exact.
The Bucks also make a lot of hay on the fast break. In the postseason, they’ve scored 21.5 points per game in transition, according to league tracking. Few teams are better at turning defense into offense.
On the whole, the Bucks’ effective field goal percentage (a measure that gives three-pointers added weight) is 52.3, which puts them 10th in the NBA during the playoffs. That’s not great, but it has been plenty when paired with an elite defense. On the other end of the floor, the Bucks have surrendered 105.6 points per 100 possessions this spring and summer, the best mark in the league.
It works because the Bucks built their roster around Antetokounmpo.
What do you do if you have a two-time NBA MVP who can do everything except shoot? A few things. First, you gear your offense to generate a lot of shots near the basket. Second, you surround that star with players who can shoot. And third, you play defense.
Milwaukee has done all three. The Bucks put a premium on getting the ball inside and creating offense on the drive. They’ve given Antetokounmpo some sharpshooting teammates, like Khris Middleton and Bryn Forbes. And the defense has never lightened up.
The Bucks’ other shooters have faltered of late. But the team is still stout enough defensively, and takes enough shots near the hoop, to have a chance to win a championship. Their next chance to steal away home-court advantage in the Finals is on Friday night in Phoenix.
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