Jimmy Butler And The Heat Are Exposing The Cracks In The Bucks’ Defense

Throughout the regular season, as the Milwaukee Bucks patrolled the paint en route to the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense, a crack in their foundation reared its head at various moments, particularly in losses to the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Despite Jrue Holiday’s mastery at the point of attack, the Bucks’ stable of reliable perimeter defenders was shallow and shaky. Holiday, Brook Lopez, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s brilliance helped paper over that flaw, but it has been re-emphasized during their first round series against the Miami Heat, where they find themselves down 3-1 heading home for Wednesday’s Game 5.

Behind Holiday, the Bucks’ two foremost perimeter stoppers are Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews. Carter’s been excised from the rotation and didn’t play in Game 4, while Matthews is sidelined with a calf injury and doesn’t offer any sort of bankable offensive juice. Carter, too, is somewhat of a non-factor offensively outside of long balls. He shot 42.5 percent inside the arc and 42.1 percent from deep in the regular season, but has buried just 1 of his 7 triples this series. Run him off the line and he’s stuck. Essentially, Milwaukee’s only option against Jimmy Butler is Holiday or bust — at least, that’s the way head coach Mike Budenholzer and Co. have treated it.

Hours removed from his mystifying 56-point explosion in Game 4, when he scored 19 points over the last 5:16, Butler is captaining the narrative of this series. The superstar wing is averaging 36.5 points on 70.8 percent true shooting. He’s canned 52.9 percent of his threes and 65.2 percent of his interior ventures. Logic-defying shot-making is assuredly scattered across the highlight reel, but he’s punishing a variety of non-Holiday defenders for routine scores when given the chance.

Milwaukee prioritizes closing off the rim and three-point line. Floaters and long twos are the goal. Although Butler’s rim frequency is down from 45 percent in the regular season to 31 percent this series, he’s prospering in purgatory, lofting in 55 percent of his shots between 4 and 14 feet, where 42 percent of his field goals are coming, per Cleaning The Glass.

Holiday’s performing about as well as possible; their individual battle is among the most captivating first-round subplots. He’s often coaxing Butler away from his preferred, dominant right hand, has turned Butler over a few times and is pushing him farther out on some midrange explorations. Yet their minutes aren’t completely mirroring one another and while Milwaukee’s generally tried to keep Holiday on him around screens, it doesn’t happen every single time.

When Butler’s seen Khris Middleton, Grayson Allen, Joe Ingles, or Jae Crowder across from him, his eyes light up. His blend of strength, flexibility, and savvy are a devastating concoction. The Bucks’ rotation is littered with players short on lateral fluidity and/or strength. Butler brings both.

It’s been a problem for the Bucks. They can’t contain him, and Lopez can’t clean up every single mess, though he is enjoying a sensational defensive (and overall) series thus far.

The final bucket in the above montage is crucial to understanding the closing segment of Butler’s Game 4 takeover. It was Middleton’s fourth foul, which occurred 27 seconds before his fifth foul. Butler’s flummoxed Middleton all series. Milwaukee knew that and wanted him to close the game, so it refused to concede switches onto Butler anymore and risk a sixth foul (he picked it up with 47 seconds remaining anyway).

Miami and Butler also sensed these developments. The Bucks have aimed to keep Holiday tethered to Butler for all the reasons laid out previously, while simultaneously trying to barricade him from rampaging downhill around screens. By and large, that gambit has behooved them. Anyone other than Holiday is hopeless against Butler.

There have been a few examples, though, where the unwillingness to accept a switch has burned them. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision, just that even the soundest of strategies is susceptible to breakdowns. The surrounding rotation demands a certain scheme and that scheme is not infallible. Down the stretch of Game 4, on three possessions that produced eight points and gave Miami the lead for good, Butler and his buddies exploited the Bucks’ approach.

With Middleton defending Lowry, the wily, title-winning point guard screened for Butler and Middleton showed on the pick; Lowry’s screen-setting expertise was a substantial boon here. Each time, it afforded Butler the requisite space to dance where he wished and be the closer the Heat needed.

Late game playoff analysis often centers on hunting mismatches. Initiators identify a mark, bring their assignment into the action, and ruthlessly attack until the defense adapts; soft switches can sink a team. Rarely does the inverse become the focus. But that’s what Butler enforced Monday night. Milwaukee would not let him isolate Middleton and he parlayed that stance into beneficial real estate on three momentous plays.

The Bucks’ tenuous point-of-attack cast is not the primary driver of their 3-1 deficit. Antetokounmpo’s absence in two of those losses cannot be ignored. Holiday’s offensive decision-making has been erratic and he’s posting 18.3 points per game on 47.9 percent true shooting. Miami, as a whole, is having an all-time great shot-making series, hitting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc after shooting 34.8 percent in the regular season.

However, the point-of-attack concerns lingered all year and were among my staunchest worries for this team as it pertained to a championship pursuit. Through four games, Butler and the Heat, with an NBA-leading 120.9 offensive rating, have magnified the issue. It’s helping power them to the precipice of an upset and adding to the legend of Playoff Jimmy, even if the man himself won’t dignify its existence.