Moore: Finding Reasons to Bet Milwaukee to Defeat Phoenix in NBA Finals
Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Members of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate their Eastern Conference championship.
It hasn’t been pretty.
It has, in fact, been plenty ugly.
But the Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA Finals.
For all the talk of how their opponent — the Phoenix Suns — have benefited from various injuries to their foes in these playoffs, the Bucks themselves have seen some of the same.
The Miami Heat were clearly overwhelmed, but still, Victor Oladipo might have helped. The Brooklyn Nets’ plan was built around having three superstars, but they had at most one and a half. The Atlanta Hawks had a limited Bogdan Bogdanovic to start the series and a limited Trae Young to end it.
Yet, despite losing Donte DiVincenzo and later, even Giannis Antetokounmpo…
The Bucks are in the Finals.
So, how does this series look for Milwaukee, and if you lean that way, what are some supporting reasons for betting the Bucks to win the title?
The Achilles’ Heel
The battle with believing in the Milwaukee starts with the buckets.
If you could believe the Bucks would shoot normally, just their standard eFG% from the regular season of 52.2% which only ranked 10th in the league, they’d be in a good spot. You can even adjust it down for the playoffs to a reasonable level and it would be fine.
Here’s a great one: Milwaukee is 8-1 in these playoffs when they hit 10 or more 3-pointers. A team has hit 10 or more 3s in these playoffs in 117 of the other 170 games. It’s a pretty common thing. The Bucks have done it in just nine of their 17 playoff games.
That’s really what this comes down to in this series. Can Milwaukee hit some shots?
Because otherwise, look at the matchups. The Phoenix Suns were separated by just 0.3 points per 100 possessions defensively in the regular-season rankings, and the Bucks were better offensively by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions. The season series was won 2-0 by the Suns by a combined two points, featuring one game without Jrue Holiday.
Teams that play drop defense in pick and roll are typically torn to pieces by Chris Paul, but the Bucks very specifically have the combination of a big who are excellent at containment on both ball handler and the lob to the roll man (Brook Lopez) and a spectacular perimeter defender able to get over screens in Holiday.
They can battle Deandre Ayton’s size advantage at the rim, can go to small-ball switch lineups with PJ Tucker at the five vs. the Suns’ small-ball unit with Dario Šarić, have an elite scoring 2-guard just as the Suns do and feature veterans who can hit 3-pointers.
But they have to hit the friggin’ shots.
Milwaukee has the fifth-lowest shooting percentage on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers of any team in the playoffs. The franchise is shooting 29.8% on 3-point attempts with the defender 4 to 6 feet away and a playoff-worst 30.9% when the defender is more than six feet away. The Bucks literally shoot better with a defender closer.
The Suns have a great defense. They’re the No. 1 closeout team in the league, and have given up the least points per closeout, according to Second Spectrum data. Phoenix has held opponents to the third-worst 3-point shooting mark in the postseason.
Milwaukee has made up for it by punishing teams inside… but the Suns are tops in defending the rim in the playoffs. They contain on the perimeter, bring help, rotate, and bring help again. This will be the toughest series offensively for the Bucks and they haven’t exactly been gangbusters so far.
Defensively, this is the set that’s going to give the Bucks the most trouble:
These double screens make it difficult for them to keep Holiday attached. It can be fine when the end result is Tucker guarding Devin Booker; that’s a much better matchup for him than Trae Young was. But with Chris Paul it becomes more dangerous.
One key differential in Milwaukee from the other teams Phoenix has faced is it won’t accept bad switches the same way. The Los Angeles Clippers were very soft in allowing those switches. The Bucks tend to fight tooth and nail, and have the communication to recover when they need to do so.
Milwaukee should hang in this series, and if Giannis Antetokounmpo is anywhere near close to himself, it has a legit chance to win the series. If we put this series through the prism of matchups and talent, as well as Xs and Os, there’s reason to think you can bet the Bucks.
Yet, can you trust them to hit the shots for once? That they are in the Finals despite not being able to hit the ground if it weren’t for gravity is a testament to how good they are, but watching them always feels more frustrating than awe-inspiring.
So, What’s the Good News?
The Suns are known to have their droughts as well. Phoenix has shot worse in its four playoff losses than Milwaukee has shot in its defeats. The Phoenix offense stalls out fairly often.
The Suns struggled with the Clippers’ defense, which wasn’t even all that good. They got past the Los Angeles Lakers on account of the Lakers’ offense having absolutely nothing when Anthony Davis went down, plus they got past the Nuggets because their defense was cheesecake.
That said, the Bucks’ defense is not cheesecake. It’s gravel. With shrapnel in it. Like a gravel-shrapnel granola.
No team in the playoffs has really gotten comfortable vs. the Milwaukee defense. The Bucks have thrown switch looks and different coverages out for the first time. The adjustments people wanted to see have been there defensively. They can knock the Suns out of their comfort zone.
If Milwaukee can just manage to score enough, this is a series it can win. Even with the Nets’ injuries, that was a tougher defensive series.
It takes a lot to bully the Suns, but the Bucks have the requisite physicality to do so. Holiday can disrupt Paul (if he can stay attached) and once you disrupt him, the Suns veteran tends to reset the offense rather than force it. Booker’s the opposite, more prone to looser shooting discipline despite how great of a passer he is.
Ayton is meant to be the X factor here, but for all the switching the Clippers did, he never really got the ball much in half-court sets. The Suns still settle for jumpers even when Ayton has a mismatch. The Bucks can cheat a little bit from their usual pick-and-roll schemes if they have to as well.
The Bucks are also dogs in this series, so of course, the ROI is higher.
So, Where’s the Value?
Even if you think right now the Bucks will win the series, which is a minority but not crazy idea, the value is not on them currently. They’re getting ready to play two in Phoenix, likely without Antetokounmpo.
The odds are very good they will lose Game 1, and if they don’t, they’re certain to lose Game 2. Even if they win Game 1 and lose Game 2 and the odds shorten from the +160 they are now, it will be with the certainty that the Bucks have gotten the split.
And if they don’t get either game in Phoenix, the value on Milwaukee will be higher, despite the increased odds that Antetokounmpo will play as the series goes on.
Oddsmakers are counting on a long series. The Bucks +1.5 on the series spread is still -145. You’re paying half a buck just for the Bucks to go 7. I don’t think Bucks in six has great value either at +125 for Bucks -1.5 series spread or Bucks in 6 +450 odds.
However, BetMGM offers +275 for Bucks in 6 OR 7, and if you’re going to bet Bucks, that’s probably best value. It builds in the expectation that Phoenix wins at least two games, but the Milwaukee takes the series.
I was expecting to bet the Bucks. I like the matchup in theory. However, the Suns have more tough shot makers and I just can’t trust the Bucks’ shooters. Not their offense. Just the actual shooters to put the round thing in the circle with the little net hanging from it.
But if you want to bet the Bucks, I can’t say I blame you. And you’re going to look like a contrarian genius if you cash.