Bucks put in the work on defense, ‘get the reward’ with comfortable win over Sixers

PHILADELPHIA — When he took the floor for the Milwaukee Bucks two hours before Friday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves for his pregame warmup, Malik Beasley found himself wondering why he was shooting on the same end as the Bucks bench. So, Beasley asked the question to the coaches on the floor.

“Yeah. It’s the other basket,” assistant coach Patrick Mutombo said. “We want to defend in front of our own bench in the second half.”

Per NBA rules (Rule No. 4, Section 1, subsection a.), the road team chooses which basket it would like to shoot on to start the game. In the second half, the two teams change baskets (according to subsection b).

Before the All-Star break, the Bucks always warmed up opposite their bench on the road. That meant that they would shoot on that basket to start the game, resulting in the Bucks playing offense in front of their bench to end games.

After the Bucks’ 119-98 win over the 76ers in Philadelphia, coach Doc Rivers confirmed the decision was a conscious tactical change. Rivers added that while he let the team stick with what it had gotten used to before the All-Star break, he couldn’t let it go any longer. He especially thought it would pay off in the postseason when his team would play defense right in front of the bench in the game’s closing moments.

That change meant that two days after noticing a change in his pregame routine, Beasley was high-fiving Rivers after Beasley forced an air-balled 3-point attempt by Tobias Harris at the end of the shot clock. The Bucks had successfully defended the 76ers for a full 24 seconds without allowing a clean look at the rim.

Beasley didn’t mean to high five his coach while the play continued — he admitted to The Athletic that he thought it was a shot-clock violation — but that didn’t make him any less proud of the work the Bucks had done on the defensive end.

“It was multiple efforts,” Beasley explained. “I had gotten beat and then somebody else got beat, but I was there to get his back. And then I went out to (Harris). It was just great. It’s a good feeling to know that when you put in the work, you get the reward.

“In the beginning of the season, we would do that and then they’d get an offensive rebound or something like that, so it wouldn’t matter. But now, we’re looking good right and we’re continuing to move in the right direction.”

It is worth noting the 76ers were without Joel Embiid, but that shouldn’t take away from the Bucks’ defensive effort.

The Bucks still held the 76ers under 100 points on 37.1 percent field goal shooting in their win Sunday. It is the third time in the last six games that the Bucks have held their opponent under 100 points, something the Bucks only did once during Adrian Griffin’s 43-game tenure. And it isn’t just because the Bucks decided to put their defense in front of their coaching staff in the second half after the All-Star break.

Under Rivers, the Bucks are more focused on defense. That’s why they were able to hold the Minnesota Timberwolves to 13 points in the third quarter Friday. That’s why they were able to hold the 76ers under 100 points Sunday.

The Bucks came out determined to execute a heavy-switching defensive scheme against the 76ers. They did just that, despite the Sixers’ Embiid-less attack being centered on heavy side-to-side ball movement, as well as a dribble-weave action.

“Best of the year,” Rivers said of the Bucks’ switching effort against the 76ers. “Because of all the teams, the way (the 76ers) play with the dribble handoffs and the weaves, I was really concerned about our switching. That’s what we’ve been really working on. And it was physical. Like, we don’t have foot speed, but we have power and length and we got our hands on them. That’s how we have to play defense.”

Look at the Bucks’ effort on the possession that left Beasley celebrating with Rivers.

It started with the Bucks getting back on defense.

Under Griffin, the Bucks were terrible in transition on defense as 17.3 percent of opponents’ possessions started with a transition play, the highest percentage of any team, per Cleaning the Glass. In 12 games under Rivers, that number has decreased as opponents have started only 13.1 percent of possessions with a transition play, the fourth-lowest percentage during that time, per Cleaning the Glass.

As the 76ers brought the ball up the floor, every Bucks player knew who they were defending and, more importantly, seemed to understand how they were defending.

The first action the Bucks defended on the possession asked Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez to switch a dribble handoff between a center and a point guard. Not only did they handle the switch, Lopez executed gap help as Harris tried to drive against Jae Crowder and forced Harris to pick up his dribble. After that, Harris pitched the ball to Kyle Lowry and the Bucks executed another switch with Crowder and Lopez.

As Beasley mentioned, the possession went sideways when Mo Bamba bobbled the ball, but the Bucks recovered well.

Bamba’s brief mishap took the Bucks’ focus off their defensive assignments and De’Anthony Melton ran free down the lane, but Beasley filled the gap. And after Beasley filled that gap, Damian Lillard sprinted to the baseline to cover Kelly Oubre Jr. Then Antetokounmpo sent Beasley away as Melton dribbled toward the Bucks big man.

As the shot clock ran down, Beasley picked up Bamba at the rim, but Lopez recognized the mismatch and started yelling at Beasley to leave the paint and find Harris on the perimeter. Eventually, Beasley pulled it off and the Bucks covered the gaps in their defense that had briefly sprung open to force an empty possession for the 76ers.

“I thought it was great,” Lillard said. “I think our communication and our physicality really helped us deal with (their offense). We didn’t get caught sleeping. We weren’t relaxed. We were into their bodies and just played with a lot of physicality. And we were disruptive. And them going from spot to spot, we didn’t just let it happen, so I think that allowed us to defend it well.”

To end the first quarter, Rivers used a lineup that featured Lillard and four bench players — Patrick Beverley, Pat Connaughton, Bobby Portis and Danilo Gallinari. Outside of Beverley, those players wouldn’t be viewed as strong defenders. Yet, they executed well and got a stop by executing multiple switches.

To start the possession, Beverley managed to keep himself in the middle with switches involving both Connaughton and Lillard. Then, once the 76ers chose to attack Connaughton, the Bucks remained solid and defended the possession well before Lillard, after a late switch with Gallinari, ultimately forced a turnover by stripping Oubre’s dribble.

“Today was one of the first times we all were communicating on reds (switches),” Beasley said. “Sometimes we get mixed up thinking, ‘Should we stay with our own or switch?’ And we did a good job of that. And like I said, it comes down to communication.”

Following Sunday’s win, the Bucks’ locker room was boisterous. The players were laughing and joking with each other and, as Beasley described, “the vibes are good” with the Bucks for the time being.

However, the vibes around the team weren’t good Sunday because it was a big win. If the Bucks are serious about contending for a championship, they should beat the 76ers playing without their MVP candidate. But that isn’t what the Bucks have done throughout this season.

They haven’t always handily beaten the teams they are supposed to beat. After beating the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 12, they lost to the Miami Heat without Jimmy Butler on Feb. 13. They lost to the Blazers in Lillard’s Portland return and they’ve played close games against the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons.

After the Bucks beat the Timberwolves on Friday, Antetokounmpo told reporters the win over one of the Western Conference’s best teams would only count if the Bucks beat the 76ers.

Sunday, the Bucks made it count.

“Carryover, carryover, carryover — that’s gotta be a keyword for us,” Antetokounmpo said Sunday, after putting up 30 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. “I feel like we’re feeling like ourselves. Playing hard, move the ball, we are defending better. We’re just playing hard.”

If the Bucks want Sunday’s win to count, they’ll need to win again Tuesday. That will require the same approach they used Sunday because their opponent is the Charlotte Hornets, one of the NBA’s worst teams and a team the Bucks might have overlooked earlier this season.

“Leaders gotta lead, shooters gotta shoot, shot blockers gotta block shots, defenders gotta defend, everybody’s gotta do their job,” Antetokounmpo said. “In order for us to be good, everybody has to do their job.”

(Photo of Malik Beasley: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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