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The Bucks Didn’t Conquer The Giannis Wall, And Didn’t Have To

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 27: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the basket against Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat during the third quarter in Game Three of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at American Airlines Arena on May 27, 2021 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This blog was going to be about how the Bucks finally conquered the wall. You remember the wall: The Toronto Raptors defended Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals by just forming a human wall every time he tried to batter his way to the rim, and it worked, and the Bucks, lacking any better idea of how to generate offense, just continued throwing Giannis at the wall until they were eliminated. The Miami Heat used the wall against the Bucks in the second round in the bubble playoffs, and it worked again, and the Bucks bombed out in five games. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Eastern Conference, what has separated a title contender from the pack in the era of Giannis is having the personnel and discipline to form the wall. But this time it didn’t matter!

The Bucks finished off a sweep of the Heat Saturday afternoon, wiping out Miami’s first-half lead and running away with a comfortable 120-103 win. Miami’s personnel for deploying the wall was as strong as ever, and possibly even stronger: Bam Adebayo is what a human-making machine would spit out if you instructed it to make a Giannis-stopper; Jimmy Butler is as smart and sturdy a perimeter help defender as the sport has ever seen; Andre Iguodala’s old ass is still around; Trevor Ariza was brought on as another long-armed veteran stopper; even Dewayne Dedmon, who stinks, is an interior defensive upgrade on last season’s backup, the gross ogre Kelly Olynyk. And the Heat knew better than to mess with a good thing: After it was all over, Giannis called Miami “a very disciplined team” that never relaxes, and specifically cited their deployment of the wall: “There’s not a play that there is going to be a wall and then the second play, there is not going to be a wall. They’re going to be there for 48 minutes.”

It’s tempting to look at the sweep and declare that Milwaukee, whether by shuffling personnel or by reworking their offense or simply by relying a little bit less on Giannis to trigger all their offense, found a way to neutralize the wall. Tear down the wall! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. That was basically my blog this morning: The Bucks defeated the Heat by defeating the wall. They have certainly talked themselves into that narrative: Giannis spoke afterward about developing as a player and “just being mature and having my head up and looking for guys when they’re open,” and about how the innovation of, uhh, having the gigantic Brook Lopez stand around in the paint allowed him to throw the ball right over the wall and score mega buckets! Wow, you are saying. Well I am saying baloney!

For one thing, Giannis stunk in this series! His scoring efficiency—45 percent from the floor, just six percent from beyond the arc—was his worst in any series since that 2019 stinker against the Raptors. He still used up 30 percent of Bucks possessions on his own offense, he still tried to batter his way into the paint on most trips up the floor, and the Heat still mostly kept him from finishing those drives by putting the ball into the basket. There is, in fact, more evidence than ever that the wall, deployed for a full 48 minutes, will turn Giannis into a sloppy, inefficient scorer, even after he’s faced it in the playoffs for four straight years, and earned a reputation as a little bit of a fraud along the way. The wall is good. Milwaukee still has not unlocked any tactical key to beating it. It helps when your non-Giannis guys simply cannot miss from beyond the arc—Khris Middleton, Bryn Forbes, Pat Connaughton, and Bobby Portis went a combined 41-of-92 from three-point territory in four games against the Heat—but make lots of threes is not a strategy, or at least not a very dependable one. Anyway, if that’s their recipe for beating the wall, it is quite literally the same recipe that failed last year.

Future Bucks opponents would be wise to continue deploying the wall against Giannis and the Bucks. This blog is not about the Bucks conquering the wall and ditching the fraud tag once and for all. That has not happened! Instead this blog is about the Bucks having an absolutely terrifying playoff defense, deploying Giannis defensively in a way that is very good and scary, and possibly never needing to worry about the wall ever again. Thankfully—because I have already wasted four paragraphs and 700 words on the aborted wall blog—that case is a lot simpler to make: Milwaukee held the Heat to a gruesome, impossible-seeming 95.4 points per hundred possessions in this series, or about four points per hundred possessions worse than the 14-win Vancouver Grizzlies, who had the worst ranked offense in the NBA in 1997. Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker make the Bucks into a frighteningly versatile unit, and even Portis, who has a well-earned reputation as a gaping defensive hole, is better suited to the switching and scrambling of playoff-style defense than Robin Lopez, the man he was hired to replace.

But the big change is Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer deploying Giannis, the reigning defensive player of the year, as a shutdown corner, glueing him to Jimmy Butler, and forcing the Heat to grind out offense without Butler’s talent for unzipping a defense. Butler racked up 23 points a game on 53 percent shooting against the Bucks in the bubble playoffs; this time, with Giannis looming over him like a terrifying thundercloud of limbs, Butler shot a nightmarish 29 percent from the floor and contributed a measly 14 points per game. There’s a universe where Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn take on and master primary perimeter playmaking duties whenever Butler is drawing the opponent’s best individual defender, but it is extremely not this one. Herro, one of Miami’s stars in their Finals run last season, was a complete non-factor in this series; Nunn had some proud moments trying to keep the Heat within spitting distance in the second half of Game 4, but ultimately he tops out as a role-player. Miami is like most teams in that it cannot survive having its best playmaker turned into Mario Hezonja, certainly not across several games of a playoff series.

With Giannis erasing the best perimeter guy and with this defensive personnel around him, Miami’s offense never had a chance. They lost this four-game series by 82 points. Milwaukee could’ve spent every fifth possession drop-kicking the ball at the basket, or given Giannis’s offensive responsibilities to Mamadi Diakite. If the Bucks can defend like this against sturdier, healthier, slightly less exhausted teams going forward, it simply will not matter how they handle the wall.