Bucks Film Room: Pick-and-roll defense will be huge factor vs 76ers

Jan 7, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) and Milwaukee Bucks guard Wesley Matthews (23) at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 7, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) and Milwaukee Bucks guard Wesley Matthews (23) at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports /

The Milwaukee Bucks tip off their season on Thursday night in a heavyweight bout against the Philadelphia 76ers in what could very well be an Eastern Conference Finals preview.

Not only is Milwaukee short-handed to begin the season (Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton are both expected to be sidelined for the first several weeks), but their schedule is also tough. Their first five games are at the 76ers before a homestand, including games against the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. Four of their first five opponents should be in the playoffs this year.

Before we look too far ahead, let’s preview the Bucks-76ers matchup.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ revamped pick-and-roll defense will be front and center in their primetime season-opener against the 76ers.

Philadelphia enjoyed tremendous success via pick-and-rolls following the acquisition of James Harden last season. Harden is an incredibly tough player to guard considering the bevy of shots he can create not only for himself, but for his teammates as well. His passing continues to be an underrated aspect of his game.

Joel Embiid will obviously be at the center of this attack as well. He is a tremendously skilled player who can score from all three levels and force the Bucks to respect both him and the ball-handler on these plays.

Tyrese Maxey is the perfect change-of-pace complement to Harden and Embiid’s calculated, but sloth-like approach to the pick-and-roll. Maxey is one of the fastest players with the rock in his hands and shoots out of a cannon following a ball screen. He can get downhill in a hurry and put pressure on defenses.

All said, the pick-and-roll game projects to feature a prominent role in this contest.

Here’s a clip from the last clash between the Bucks and 76ers. Harden comes off a ball screen at the top of the key and immediately attacks toward the free-throw line. Brook Lopez does his best to defend Harden with a high hand toward the sky to detract from a shot or a pass. It doesn’t work, as Harden uses the bankboard to get his team two points.

The 76ers finished last year eighth in points per possession by the roll man in a pick-and-roll and fourth in points per possession by the ball-handler. That will put a lot of pressure on the Bucks’ defense and their new scheme.

Last year, the Bucks sent oodles of help when a defender even thought about getting into the paint:

As Harden comes off the Embiid screen, Giannis Antetokounmpo immediately slides over from the strongside corner to cut off the drive. Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen also pinch the paint from the weak side to deter Philadelphia from getting a shot off. Despite Embiid knocking down the free throw line jumper, this is pretty solid defense by Milwaukee.

Now, throw all that help out the window. One of the biggest changes this season will be Milwaukee’s off-ball defenders staying home on their guys. Instead of everyone crashing the paint, the Bucks want their guys to stay home and more connected to their assignments. This will allow them to limit open three-point shots that have given them fits the last few seasons.

This clip is from the Bucks’ final preseason game against the Nets. Kyrie Irving receives a high ball screen at the top of the key and attacks toward the left elbow. Last season, Bobby Portis would’ve slid over to help stop the drive, but he stays home on his man in the left corner. On the weak side, Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday also stick closer to their assignments instead of collapsing to the middle. Irving still hits the shot because that’s what he does, but George Hill is in a great position to contest the look.

Here’s another example from the same game:

Irving comes off the pick toward the right side this time. Ignoring Antetokounmpo’s lackadaisical stance, his positioning is what’s most important. Instead of diving toward the paint to help on the roll man, he stays near the three-point line where Kevin Durant is positioned. This allows him to recover in time and challenge the attempt.

Peep the screenshots below that tie it all together. Last year, Milwaukee prioritized the paint as the number one area they wanted to defend. They still want to prevent shots close to the hoop, but are spending a lot more energy defending the three-point line as well. The 76ers should have much more room to operate in the paint than it’s used to against the Bucks.

Lopez will be challenged more than ever this season. It will be up to him and the other bigs defending the screener to stay in between the ball, their man and the basket. An island nobody wants to be on.

Philadelphia will certainly throw a lot of post-ups and isolations at the Bucks. Actions they are probably better prepared to handle than the pick-and-roll game. How Milwaukee guards (or doesn’t guard) the screening actions will go a long way in determining the outcome of this showdown.

Next. 5 bold predictions for Bucks' upcoming season. dark

If you’re a Bucks fan, don’t be too discouraged by poor results. The 76ers are among the best teams in the NBA and will put disproportionate pressure on Milwaukee’s new scheme. It’s a stiff first test for the Bucks, but they’ll be better for it throughout the rest of the season.