Running in transition, open jumpers, and other notes from Milwaukee’s Game 6 victory

The Milwaukee Bucks were able to stave off elimination in Game 6 on Thursday night, surviving to fight another day with a 97-86 victory over the Boston Celtics. A few scattered thoughts on what we saw from Milwaukee that helped them pull out the victory:

Milwaukee’s transition game

Per Synergy, the Bucks pushed the ball 31 times in Game 6, as opposed to Boston’s 11. Getting out in transition is key for an uber-athletic Milwaukee team that thrived in transition all season; they ranked second in transition frequency throughout the regular season and scored almost 111 points per 100 possessions in transition this season. As the Bucks usually struggle a bit more in the halfcourt, it’s very important for them to run up and down in transition in order to keep the defense off balance. However, it’s not just that they get out in transition frequently but who has the ball in his hands as they do so. Of course, they’re led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can rip down defensive rebounds and go coast-to-coast in fewer dribbles than just about anybody in the world, but they have multiple guys who have the green light to grab and go.

Teams drill their transition defense throughout the year in order to cut down on their opponents’ easiest way to score. In general, the point guard is responsible for picking up the man with the ball and not letting him coast in for a layup, which is a fine strategy against a majority of teams. However, against the Bucks, Boston was frequently caught in mismatches or were so focused on stopping the ball that they were unable to contain anybody else. Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker had particular success pushing the ball in transition and catching the Celtics in advantageous matchups.

Semi Ojeleye is charged with defending Antetokounmpo, but when he picked up the loose ball and got going in transition, Ojeleye was a step behind, forcing Jaylen Brown to step up to stop the ball and leaving Khris Middleton wide open under the basket. If Ojeleye is going to spot up in the corner offensively, he really has to focus on getting back in transition defense, since he has the longest path to take of all the Celtics and has the most important job: stopping Antetokounmpo.

Getting cross-matched as the Bucks ran at them was a particular problem for the Celtics throughout the game. Watch how Al Horford goes in for the offensive rebound and then doesn’t realize who he’s guarding until Middleton is almost past him:

Even if they didn’t score immediately in transition, Milwaukee hunted the right matchup when they got it with Antetokounmpo or Middleton in the post. After Parker pulled in a defensive rebound and pushes the ball up the court, watch how the Celtics mismatched, leaving Rozier on Middleton:

The Bucks recognized the advantage immediately, as Parker pulled the ball out to the wing and hit Middleton in the post. Boston had to send an extra guy to the ball, which put their weak-side defenders in rotation and gave up the open three to Tony Snell.

After a Celtics miss, Antetokounmpo was the first one down the court, which drew Aron Baynes as the only defender close enough to him. In this scenario, Baynes did a great job staying with Antetokounmpo in isolation (something the big Australian has done all series), but that is still an advantage for the Bucks that Boston won’t want to give up consistently.

Open shots

For as unimaginative as the Milwaukee offense can be at times, they were able to generate a boatload of open shots in Game 6. The Celtics were very quick to double in isolation and post-up situations and collapsed into the paint on nearly every pick-and-roll, creating openings on the perimeter. Milwaukee scored just 14 points on 18 open jumpers, a mark so poor that it can only be put down to bad luck. It’s not as if it was Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe taking the majority of these shots—the Bucks got relatively poor shooting performances from Thon Maker (1-for-4), Matthew Dellavedova (1-for-4), and Tony Snell (2-for-6). The law of averages has to even out for them eventually; if they’re able to generate the same kind of open shots they did in Game 6, they’ll be fine in Game 7 in Boston.

Late-clock defense

On the other end of the floor, Milwaukee was suffocating to a Boston offense that is sure to struggle in these playoffs without Kyrie Irving. In particular, the Bucks put the Celtics in late-clock situations again and again—Boston had 23 possessions tick down past four seconds on the shot clock, a full 24 percent of their possessions. For reference, the Memphis Grizzlies “led” the league during the regular season with just 13 percent of their possessions ending in the last four seconds of the clock. This has been a consistent problem for the Celtics against Milwaukee—they “lead” the playoffs in late-clock usage, with 19 percent of their offense coming very late.

In general, late-clock offense is horrendous—Boston ranked third in the league this season in late-clock efficiency, scoring 86.7 points per 100 possessions in these scenarios, and that was with Kyrie Irving, who often bailed them out late in the clock. They’ve actually had a bit of late-clock luck so far in these playoffs, but once again, the law of averages has to be coming for them eventually.