Defense optional when Pacers, Bucks meet in tournament semifinal
The Eastern Conference side of the In-Season Tournament bracket has been winnowed down to two Central Division foes. What does their semifinal have in store? In short, a ton of points.
It's hard enough for any defense to stop the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks from scoring. These teams are ranked first and third in offensive rating, respectively. Not just this season, but ever. In Monday's quarterfinal, the Pacers hung 74 second-half points on the Boston Celtics' second-ranked defense, while the Bucks sent the New York Knicks tumbling from third all the way down to seventh in those same rankings by putting up 146 on Tuesday in a game in which they shot 60% from 2-point range and 3-point range.
But the Bucks' and Pacers' defenses aren't just any defenses - they also happen to be uniquely ill-equipped to guard each other's offense. That was borne out in their early November meeting, which the Bucks narrowly lost 126-124 without Damian Lillard. Milwaukee currently ranks 21st in defensive efficiency, while Indiana clocks in at 28th.
Let's start with the Bucks' defense. Their big issue is in the backcourt, where they start the highly flammable duo of Lillard and Malik Beasley - with Beasley usually getting the toughest perimeter assignment. That is, uh, somewhat problematic considering they'll be trying to slow down Tyrese Haliburton, who's merely been the best offensive guard in the sport this season. Haliburton just cooked Jrue Holiday and Derrick White; what do you think he's going to do to Beasley and Co.?
It's not just Haliburton that Milwaukee has to worry about, either. The Pacers torch teams with guard-guard actions they run at breakneck speed, mixing in all manner of slips and ghost screens. (Those actions are especially deadly when they involve Buddy Hield, who wasn't even starting the last time these teams played.) The slow, creaky Bucks just aren't built to defend that stuff. Lillard and Khris Middleton don't have the foot speed, and Beasley doesn't have the off-ball awareness.
And that's just in the half court. How are the Bucks going to keep up in the open floor? They allow the highest frequency of opponent transition possessions in the league, and the Pacers' offense does more damage in transition than all but two teams. You have to wonder if we'll see more of MarJon Beauchamp, who played just 13 minutes in the November game. Beauchamp still makes his share of mistakes, but he's easily the team's most athletic perimeter defender.
Milwaukee's interior defense is supposed to be its safety net, but Indiana is such a perimeter-oriented team that I'm not sure how much that matters. It will be interesting, though, to see how the Bucks react to the threat of Myles Turner's shooting, especially if he buries a bunch of pick-and-pops in the early going (as he did last time). Will Brook Lopez continue to drop back? Would the Bucks consider cross-matching to put Giannis Antetokounmpo on Turner so he could switch onto Haliburton (or play up at the level), with Lopez stashed on Obi Toppin and ready to help on the back side?
Milwaukee also sprinkled in some 2-3 zone in the teams' last meeting. While it wasn't particularly effective - and may seem counterintuitive given how well Indiana shoots the ball - it's not a bad card to have up your sleeve considering the Pacers are light on supplemental playmaking and don't have a big who's especially capable of playing zone-buster in the middle.
Wheeling around to the other end of the floor, what exactly are the Pacers going to do about Antetokounmpo? Because the answer when they saw him in November was … basically nothing. Against a parade of helplessly overmatched defenders, he bludgeoned his way to 54 points on 19-for-25 shooting. The Pacers tried throwing Toppin, Turner, Aaron Nesmith, Bruce Brown, and even Bennedict Mathurin at him. None of them had anything resembling an answer. (Mathurin, incredibly, had the most success.)
I'd expect Nesmith to get much more run this time out, especially after his huge quarterfinal performance. Physically, he's the Pacer best equipped to absorb Antetokounmpo's force and hold up his progress long enough for help to arrive. But for that to be effective, help actually needs to arrive, and the Pacers generally aren't too keen on helping. They much prefer to play things straight up and keep their weak-side defenders home on shooters to suppress opponent 3-point attempts. As a result, they allow opponents to take nearly 41% of their shots at the rim, by far the highest rate in the league. They stubbornly played Antetokounmpo in single coverage for almost the entirety of his 54-point outburst, only doubling toward the end of the game. And keep in mind, this was without Lillard in the lineup. They had plenty of places to help from.
With Lillard there, I'm not sure what they can even do. They're hardly any better than the Bucks are at defending the point of attack, though they at least have Brown, who's solid. Brown will probably get the bulk of the Lillard assignment, but if the Pacers don't loosen their insistence on defending pick-and-rolls two-on-two, they'll get torched by arguably the most potent dual shooting/driving threat in the league. That said, they get gashed on the back side just about any time Turner gets dragged out to the perimeter, so they'll probably need to pull the extra bodies over from the wing and help aggressively at the nail.
If that means giving up a bunch of one-pass-away threes to Beasley, then so be it. No defense, least of all Indiana's, is going to take away all of Milwaukee's offensive weapons. If you're picking a poison, it's probably best to try and make someone other than Giannis and Dame beat you.
One way or another, if you like a good shootout, this is the game for you.