LaMarcus Aldridge came out firing in the Spurs’ eventual loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee on Saturday night. With the big fella riding a downright Bertans-ian streak coming into the game, the Spurs would have been more than happy to let him pop all night long if the Bucks would just play along. But after LaMarcus knocked down 4 of his 5 three pointers in the 1st quarter, including a step back over Brook Lopez, on his way to 14 points on just 7 shooting possessions, the Bucks’ defense adjusted.
They began the game playing an exaggerated version of the same conservative drop coverage on penetration that the Spurs typically use. That left LaMarcus wide open from deep for the first time just over a minute into the game.
DeMar DeRozan’s pass is well off target, which gives Lopez plenty of time to recover, though LaMarcus still gets a decent look. He missed this one short, but the play was a sign of things to come. The Spurs went back to the same idea a few possessions later, then on back-to-back plays a little over halfway through the quarter, with predictable results.
The Bucks’ scheme is designed to prevent shots at the rim, at almost any cost. Where most other teams would use a late switch, the Bucks’ defenders were continuing to pursue the Spurs’ ball handler while the big dropped to cut off any potential path to the basket. They allow fewer shots at the rim than any other team, but the 3rd most above the break three-point attempts, which makes a ton of sense considering how they deal with this type of penetration.
For the most part, they’re willing to live with the results. Despite the fact that their opponents are hitting 38.0% on above the break threes, the highest in the league, the Bucks still have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 102.2 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
But LaMarcus’ 4th three pointer of the 1st quarter was just a little too much to bear. The reaction on the Bucks’ bench says it all.
Assistant Coach Darvin Ham drops the paper he’s holding, throws a look at Head Coach Mike Budenholzer on the sideline then leans back in mild exasperation.
So it’s not surprising that the Bucks adjusted their coverage in the 2nd quarter. Instead of continuing to track the ball handler, the perimeter defender began switching on to LaMarcus immediately to prevent the throwback for an easy three. That gave DeMar a couple of opportunities to attack the switch.
As the night wore on, though, the Bucks settled into their adjustment. The Spurs were largely unable to exploit those switches and went away from the pick and pop with Demar and LaMarcus for most of the 2nd half. It will be interesting to see how the two teams approach this action when they meet again on Monday night. The Spurs will likely test the coverage early and will hopefully have some counters ready if the Bucks continue to be this mindful of LaMarcus as a shooting threat.
Of course, considering the run he’s on right now, they probably will. Up until December 23rd, LaMarcus had made 3 three-pointers in a game just three times in his career. He’s done it in 4 of the 6 games since. Over that stretch, he has made 18 of his 27 threes, including 1 in each game, which is the longest streak of his career. He’s now shooting 45.1% from deep on over 2 attempts per game this season.
The Spurs weren’t able to take advantage of it, but that LaMarcus’ ability to shoot the ball from deep busted the preferred coverage scheme of the best defense in basketball is a great indicator of just how dangerous he can be when he spaces the floor like this. There’s no way he’ll be able to continue the streak he’s on for long, but he’s a good enough shooter that defenses will have to account for him, as the Bucks did, in ways the Spurs should be able to exploit.