The Milwaukee Bucks survived on Thursday, if only just barely. In Game 3 of their second-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, they built a 30-9 lead in the first 10 and a half minutes, then scored just three points in the next nine minutes. It was their least efficient offensive game of the series -- they scored 89.6 points per 100 possessions -- but the 86-83 win counts the same as the Nets' 125-86 thrashing in Game 2.
"It doesn't matter how you do it this time of year," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "You just gotta find a way to get it done."
Budenholzer accurately described the game as a slugfest. For more than four minutes in the fourth quarter, the score was tied 76-76, with two of the best teams in the NBA clanking jumpers. Milwaukee finally broke the tie when Khris Middleton hit his patented pull-up, stepping into a clean look from midrange off a ball screen from Giannis Antetokounmpo:
The Middleton-Antetokounmpo screen is a staple of the Bucks' offense, and they've gone to it more than ever this season. They didn't get much out of it in the first two games of the series, and it didn't work every time they went to it in Game 3, but it's precisely the type of action that every team needs to be able to turn to in difficult situations.
"I could see what they were trying to give me," Middleton said. "I just tried to take advantage of it. I feel like I can score in a lot of different ways. Those shots, those are the type of shots they want me to take. And I'm confident. I think I'm good enough, I've worked on those shots a lot to knock them down. And it went down for me tonight."
Middleton knew that Antetokounmpo's defender, Blake Griffin, would be in drop coverage. While Brooklyn spent most of the season switching just about every screen, it is treating Antetokounmpo differently. Antetokounmpo is not a threat to pop out to the perimeter, and the Nets would rather not give him an advantage by putting a smaller defender on him. This means there is space for Middleton to quickly get to his pull-up, or to get his defender on his hip and make a play.
At Barclays Center in January, Middleton missed a 3-pointer in the corner that would have beaten the Nets. He had that opportunity in part because he hit two pull-ups in crunch time, both of which came off Antetokonmpo ball screens, with DeAndre Jordan in a deep drop.
Middleton scored the clutch the same way in Milwaukee five weeks ago, with Griffin defending the ball screen, although I'm still not sure if it was intended to be a floater or a lob:
If the Bucks do not fix their ugly offense soon, Antetokounmpo will surely get much of the blame, particularly for his poor shooting from 3-point range (1-for-8 in Game 3, 3-for-16 in the series, 4-for-32 in the playoffs) and the free throw line (4-for-9 in Game 3, 6-for-19 in the series, 27-for-52 in the playoffs). To his credit, though, Antetokounmpo has become more of a screen-setter this season, allowing Middleton and Jrue Holiday to make plays. Holiday has yet to find his rhythm against Brooklyn, but Middleton broke out with a game-high 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting on Thursday. Milwaukee needs more of that. (And yes, it needs fewer 3-point attempts from Antetokounmpo.)
The Nets' strategy against Antetokounmpo's ball screens has mostly been effective. The Bucks turned it over twice early in the fourth quarter with Middleton as the ballhandler, and Griffin stopped Antetokounmpo at the rim in the final minute with Holiday as the ballhandler. Brooklyn doesn't have the reputation as a disruptive defensive team, but Bruce Brown and Joe Harris fight over screens and there is always a help defender at the nail.
Milwaukee cannot say it has figured out Brooklyn's defense, not even close, but it can continue to put Griffin in pick-and-rolls and empower Middleton and Holiday. Take advantage of the space the Nets are surrendering, and they'll have to at least think about changing the coverage. If there is a lesson from Middleton's pull-up to break the tie, it's good things happen when he makes quick decisions. He hunted that shot, rather than settling for it.