Bucks’ defensive effort holds Thunder to lowest scoring output of season: ‘The way we need to compete’

MILWAUKEE — When Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Giddey briefly lost control of the ball in the middle of the third quarter Sunday, Milwaukee Bucks guard Malik Beasley saw an opportunity. As Giddey tried to corral his dribble, Beasley poked the ball away and set himself up to fulfill the dream of every high school basketball coach in America and dive for a loose ball slowly rolling toward the sideline.

Beasley executed the move flawlessly.

He slid across the floor on his stomach before pushing the rolling ball back to Brook Lopez, who pitched it ahead to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks’ two-time Most Valuable Player took it from there, Euro stepping around a defender and finishing through contact to give Milwaukee a 13-point lead.

“This is what we need to do,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Beasley’s dive. “This is the way we need to compete.”

The play was emblematic of the Bucks’ defensive effort against the team that had the Western Conference’s best record entering Sunday. This season, the Thunder have been one of the league’s best offensive teams, but the Bucks shut them down, putting together an impressive 118-93 victory.

The Thunder’s 93-point outing was their lowest of the season. Before Sunday’s game, Oklahoma City led the Western Conference in field goal percentage, knocking down 50 percent of its shots. Against the Bucks, the Thunder had their worst shooting performance of the season, making only 33 of their 89 shot attempts, a paltry 37.1 percent from the field. While it is totally fair to suggest the Thunder might have simply had an off night, the Bucks worked hard defensively to make the Thunder uncomfortable for 48 minutes.

“Good to have our full team for the first time in a long time,” Bucks reserve big man Bobby Portis said. “And good to see everybody playing good. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from 3 tonight, but we did all the other little things to help get the dub, closeouts on defense, extra efforts, helping the helper, everybody just staying connected and communicating. And everything worked well for us today. It was a good win.”

For the first time since Jan. 31, and only the third time with Doc Rivers as head coach, the Bucks were able to use their preferred starting lineup of Damian Lillard, Beasley, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Lopez. Following the game, Rivers told reporters he believed that was the Bucks’ “most connected game” since he took over and appreciated the team’s ability to make the right play on both sides of the floor.

Offensively, the Bucks dominated with their size, with Antetokounmpo, who ended the night with 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting, 19 rebounds and four assists, taking the lead. Antetokounmpo rarely forced the action and regularly made the unselfish play to foster better ball movement, which resulted in seven players ending the night with double-figure scoring totals for the Bucks. Lillard did the same with the Thunder’s regular trapping and double-teams, and ended the night with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists and Middleton recorded his second career triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

But Sunday was all about the Bucks’ effort on defense.

“We were connected,” Lillard said. “Our communication was good. Physicality was good. And I think we executed our scouting report really well. A lot of the adjustments we talked about in practice and walkthrough, we just executed it. Our energy was right. Our minds was right and we just showed what we’re capable of doing, when we take care of those things.”

While the Bucks limited the Thunder to 47 points in the first half, their defensive effort shined brightest in the third quarter as they held Oklahoma City to 17 points on 5-of-22 shooting. The Thunder missed their first 13 shots of the third quarter and the Bucks started the second half with an 18-2 run before Jalen Williams finally made a shot for Oklahoma City with 5:52 left in the period.

Thunder coach Mark Daignaeult employs one of the league’s most creative offensive systems with five-out spacing that leverages the shooting ability of rookie center Chet Holmgren and the full offensive versatility of his talented lineup. The entire roster is expected to set screens, which has regularly put defenses in compromised positions this season, but none of the spacing, creativity or screening seemed to have much impact on the Bucks’ physical, switching defensive effort on Sunday.


How a rare offensive approach has the Thunder rising to the top of the NBA

For example, look at this third-quarter defensive possession by the Bucks.

While the possession started with an entry pass to Giddey on the right elbow, the real action was on the left side of the floor. This after-timeout play (ATO) started with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander setting a screen for Jalen Williams. Most teams want to keep their best defender on Gilgeous-Alexander and this play aimed to take advantage of that by putting Gilgeous-Alexander’s defender in a help position on Williams’ baseline cut.

In fact, this is an action that has tripped up the Bucks this season. But not on Sunday. The Bucks typically limit their switching efforts to on-ball screens. Against the Thunder, the Bucks switched off-ball screens, like this screen from Gilgeous-Alexander, as well.

“We talked about the switching off the ball, which we don’t do. We did that tonight. A lot,” Rivers said post-game. “But if we’re going to switch, switch to block, meaning switch and make them go the other way. They got two or three back cuts on that, which, film-wise, we’d have to look and see why. But it was just so much more physical than we’ve been.

“And we have size. I keep saying it. We’re not track stars, but we are physical when we play that way. And I thought we did that tonight.”

Rather than trying to help out Middleton and then chasing Gilgeous-Alexander, the Bucks executed a switch and that switch put Middleton in a position to get physical with Gilgeous-Alexander on the next screen from Lugentz Dort.

Rather than being able to pop out for a quick 3-point look, the Thunder point guard needed to take a wide, looping path toward the ball. That gave Middleton and Lillard the time and space needed to execute the next switch and put Lillard on the ball.

That was important because while Lillard is not the league’s best defender, he can be much more impactful with his quickness on the ball as he can as a help defender. On top of that, Middleton is one of the Bucks’ best team defenders. That switch put him in position to be a helper and communicator rather than the on-ball defender.

“It’s going to be key for us,” Middleton said of the Bucks’ physicality in switching. “I mean, we’re not as fast as some of these younger teams, but we’re a smart team. We’re a high-IQ team and we’re pretty long at different positions, especially down low.

“Dame’s been doing a great job of containing the ball when guys try to go at him, picking pockets, standing his ground. We’re going to need that. Malik’s been doing a great job taking the primary wings for the most part. I’m just trying to figure out where I can help on the defensive side, filling gaps, just being in the right spot. But I think for the most part, we’re doing a great job of just playing team defense.”

The Bucks’ rapid-fire switching to start the possession put the Thunder in a position where Dort had the option to either shoot a contested 3 over the top of Giannis Antetokounmpo or attack Antetokounmpo’s close out. Dort opted to drive.

That drive led to another off-ball switch. This time, Beasley was the one that flew out to Holmgren after holding onto the screener and preventing any backdoor cuts on the drive. Holmgren attacked that closeout from Beasley and triggered an on-ball switch from Antetokounmpo, which left Beasley scrambling again to get out to a shooter. Beasley flew out to Dort, who again attacked the closeout and kicked a pass out to Holmgren.

And while Antetokounmpo got stuck helping on that Dort drive and it looked like the Bucks were going to give up an open 3, Lillard left Gilgeous-Alexander at the last possible second and flew out at Holmgren. Lillard’s late help forced Holmgren to pump fake the catch-and-shoot 3, take a dribble and then fire off a contested 3 off the bounce right before the shot clock expired that ended up well short.

It took 11 paragraphs to describe everything the Bucks did on that single 24-second defensive possession. That attention to detail was the level at which the Bucks were executing defensively on Sunday. Over and over, that was the physical and mental effort the Bucks put into defense against the Thunder.

This possession a little more than a minute later was not nearly as pretty and definitely not flawlessly executed, but the same effort went into getting the stop.

It started with good effort on the ball from Beasley against Gilgeous-Alexander and an extremely aggressive bit of late help from Lopez, which resulted in a tipped pass. From there, it was a desperate effort from Lopez and Middleton to run Williams off the 3-point line and keep him from making the immediate swing to the corner.

And then the possession ended with absolute desperation from everyone on the floor. Lillard flew from the middle of the lane to the corner. Lopez continued his circuit around the floor with three more on-ball efforts. And Middleton and Antetokounmpo cleaned up the rebound to end it.

All night long, the Bucks brought the effort and focus, and executed an incredibly smart defensive game plan that slowed down one of the league’s most potent offenses and, in Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the NBA’s best players. Not only was it a rough night for the Thunder as a team, Gilgeous-Alexander ended the night with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting and only two assists compared to four turnovers.

“It’s really helpful for us,” Lillard said when asked about how physicality helps the Bucks’ switching efforts. “I think, even as an offensive player, when a team is switching soft and there’s like space and gaps, you can shoot or you can attack. When they’re kind of back off you, it’s easier to play against. It doesn’t take away any of your rhythm.

“So, us switching and kind of jumping out at guys is making them take steps back instead of them coming downhill at us and we’re on our heels. Getting into their bodies, it’s hard to play like that. It’s hard to play against it. The more we can be like that, guys can be in tighter and they can be in help position and kind of deter the drive and still get back to their guy. And we’re eliminating 3s too, so I thought tonight we just did a much better job of that.”

All season long, the Bucks, now 46-25, have been searching for greater consistency on defense. They will need to find a way to bring the effort they brought against the Thunder on Sunday every single night in the postseason. But their execution of a complex and unique defensive scheme against one of the league’s most powerful offenses suggests their ceiling as a defensive team might be higher than it has seemed throughout this season.

(Photo of Damian Lillard and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

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