Despite the loss, Doc Rivers is laying the foundation for what he wants the Bucks to be
DENVER – The Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Denver Nuggets 113-107 on Monday in Doc Rivers’ first game as Bucks coach. This is disappointing, as the Bucks have high expectations and want to win the championship this season. Winning matches is important.
But as evidenced by the team’s decision to fire Adrian Griffin after a 30-13 start to his first season as an NBA head coach, winning isn’t enough. To make the organization’s decision-makers believe a team is capable of winning a championship, the Bucks must be able to win a certain way, and that will require some changes.
Even in the loss, those changes began to take shape in Rivers’ first game.
They started with the Bucks’ defensive effort against an offense led by two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic. After their struggles defensively in the first half of the season and their terrible start in January, there were some questions about whether the Bucks could improve defensively or whether they were destined to remain stuck in the bottom third of NBA defenses. In Rivers’ view, his new team answered that question conclusively on Monday night.
“We got into a fight,” Rivers said. “We accelerated well. I liked their switch-ups down the stretch, and they sacked the Lady (Lillard) a lot. I thought the Lady fought back. So, you know, the cat’s out of the bag. They’ve all proven they can do it, so now we’ve got to do it.” Every night.
Jamal Murray scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the second quarter to push his first-half point total to 21. But the Bucks turned up the intensity in the second half and held the Nuggets scoreless in the third period.
It wasn’t just about Brook Lopez challenging shots at the rim, as he did in the box above to open the third quarter. On Monday, the Bucks worked hard on the defensive end and executed several turnovers in scramble situations while remaining fundamentally sound.
Look at this possession from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unit and four players on the bench.
Murray hurt the Bucks defense by throwing the ball over the top to Antetokounmpo, who was facing Jokic at the post to start the possession, but Bobby Portis was there to get a clean look at the rim. Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne crashed to take an open lane on Christian Brown’s cutoff, then Portis rushed outside to contain Brown. Portis and Pat Connaughton then ran a pick-and-roll situation for Murray before the team successfully scrambled to shut down the shooter in the corner.
This was a defense moving together on a string around the ground. It wasn’t perfect, but there was communication and effort, and the Bucks hung in there. This seemed like a team well aware of the long list of things Rivers suggested they could improve on defensively.
“Defensively, we don’t have to make a lot of substitutions,” Rivers said before Monday’s game. “Teams are scoring on us at a very good rate. Transition has to improve D. We’ve listed a lot of things today, I’ll tell you that.
While the Bucks weren’t able to score enough to win, their defense did get two stops in prime time, including this possession in which the Bucks took several turnovers and eventually got the stop when Lillard successfully challenged Peyton Watson. .
The Bucks have made some turnovers under Griffin, but rarely have they put multiple switches together in one possession quite like this. Rewatch Lillard on that possession. First, he made two substitutions with Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Then, as Jokic tries to roll to the rim and establish himself at the free throw line, Lillard connects with Lopez and successfully executes a “rush” switch to get Lopez on Jokic. The possession ends by climbing the ladder and competing for the ball.
This is a great effort from the Bucks, and the same one that Rivers found himself talking about after the game. The players shared Rivers’ enthusiasm.
“I thought it was great,” Lopez said of the Bucks’ defensive effort. “We maintained that for pretty much the entire game. There were some possessions that I know I myself didn’t get about 50-50 balls off of. That made some difference, but overall, you know, our energy was great. Our intent was great,” he said. There is no excuse in this regard because we have shown that we can be a great (defensive) team.
Although the Bucks’ defensive effort was better, it was not perfect. There are still mistakes and things to improve moving forward, like that botched switch between Antetokounmpo and Middleton. This is a tough move for anyone to defend because few players juggle defenders better than Jokic.
And while the Bucks’ defensive performance on Monday deserves the bulk of the attention, it wasn’t the only thing that changed in Rivers’ first game. He also made a major change to the Bucks’ rotations.
To start the season, Griffin built his rotations to stagger Antetokounmpo and Lillard’s minutes to keep one of his stars on the floor at all times. After the first 10 games of the season, Lillard told Griffin that he would rather play the entire first quarter and third quarter because that’s what he did with the Portland Trail Blazers. Griffin acquiesced, and Lillard played the entire first and third quarters, meaning the Bucks always start the second and fourth quarters with Antetokounmpo and Lillard on the bench.
With 5:15 remaining in the first quarter on Monday, Rivers made his first substitution, taking Antetokounmpo and Lillard out of the game. Antetokounmpo returned with 3:36 left in the first quarter, while Lillard returned to the floor with 1:23 seconds remaining in the opening period.
After the game, Rivers explained that those substitutions were not dictated by the effects of playing at altitude in Denver. They were purposeful and the new style of switching he wanted to use with the star duo.
“We talked about it,” Rivers said. “We talked about it on my first day. I really want Dame and Giannis to be there when we take the penalty. But I don’t want Dame to be tired when we take the penalty. So, our plan is to take them out and bring them back in, so they can finish the semester.”
Rivers also said he planned to go into a small-ball formation with Antetokounmpo at center in the fourth quarter, but Antetokounmpo picked up his fourth foul with 7:51 remaining in the game that changed Rivers’ plans.
“(It hurt us) when he made the fourth foul because we were about to go to him to guard (Jokic),” Rivers said. “We were going to be small, Giannis is the only big. Joker is going to have to guard him in transition, but then he makes his fourth foul. So, sometimes you have plans, but they don’t work out.
Rivers has made some other changes to the rotation. Payne returned to mirror Lillard’s minutes and played every minute Lillard was not on the floor. Rivers used a nine-man rotation, and neither Andre Jackson Jr. nor Marjon Beauchamp saw any minutes in Denver.
The Bucks ownership group and general manager John Horst made it clear that a loss is not an acceptable outcome in Milwaukee. The change they made to the head coach wasn’t just about winning games; It was about finding a coach who could make the changes necessary to help the Bucks find an identity that the organization believed could compete for a championship come playoff time.
It remains to be seen what the results will be, but on Rivers’ first night on the job, it’s clear the organization chose the coach without fear of making those changes.
(Top image: Jimmy Schwabero/Getty Images)
(tags for translation) Milwaukee Bucks