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NBA Daily: Milwaukee’s Bench Rises To Occasion

The Bucks may have found another dimension to their team with their excellent second unit, writes Matt John.

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The Bucks beat the Celtics in convincing fashion in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Even after an alarming Game 1 blowout loss at home, Milwaukee asserted itself as the superior team. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP play as well as Mike Budenholzer’s top-notch game planning gave the Bucks the edge they needed to avenge their postseason defeat against the Celtics last year.

So much went right for the Bucks, but there was one particular stretch in the series that made it evident that they weren’t going to lose to the Celtics again. It was Game 4, a must-win game for Boston. One of Brad Stevens’ key strategies was taking advantage of the Bucks when Giannis went off the court and into foul trouble just a few minutes into the third.

It should have only gotten better when Khris Middleton also found himself in foul trouble just a minute or so later. With the Bucks’ two best players both on the bench, the Celtics were up 63-61 with a rare opportunity on their hands to take command of the game. But when Giannis and Middleton returned to the court, the Bucks were up 80-72.

The 19-9 run the Bucks went on without its two all-stars exemplified the X-Factor that made this series a Gentleman’s sweep for them: The dazzling play of the second unit.

Outshining Boston’s bench wasn’t supposed to be an easy task. Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and later down the line, Marcus Smart made up a second string that should have been tough to slow down. The Bucks’ second unit made a bench that had a pre-season nickname of B.W.A. (Bench With Attitude) look like a bunch of chumps.

After Game 1, Milwaukee’s bench outscored Boston’s 152-104 in its next four games, which definitely played a role in the Bucks outscoring the Celtics by 65 in Games 2 through 5 combined.

The following factors are how Milwaukee’s bench ripped Boston’s to pieces.

Stifling Defense

Milwaukee made life miserable for Boston on the offensive end after Game 1. The team let up an average of 102.5 points per game and allowed 96.5 points per 100 possessions. Because of their efforts, Boston’s offense barely even existed.

The bench had a lot to do with that. Across the board, virtually every single Bucks player on their own did an excellent job defensively. Outside of Brook Lopez, every player who played consistent rotation minutes had a defensive rating of 94 or lower. The ones at the very top were the ones who came off the bench.

Ersan Ilyasova (minus-10.5), Pat Connaughton (minus-5.1) and George Hill (minus 3.1) had three of the top five most positive impacts on the defensive side of the ball. Their contributions played a part in how the Celtics’ offense almost always struggled in the second quarter. Boston averaged only 22.5 points in the second quarter in Games 2 through 5, which was definitely the lowest average they had over that span. Since Boston usually handled itself well in the first quarter, Milwaukee’s second unit helped set the tone for the rest of the team to follow.

Milwaukee’s second unit doesn’t have the likes of a Lou Williams or a Jamal Crawford who can light up the scoreboard. They do have a defense that gives the second unit enough stability to relieve pressure from the starters.

George Hill’s Re-emergence

Hill was acquired primarily to clear up the books this summer in hopes of re-signing Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. Besides that, the Bucks never really relied on him until Brogdon went down a few months ago.

Even then, George wasn’t really too consistent. He had a couple of good game at the end of the season, but at 33 years old, it seemed Hill’s best days were already far behind him. After the Boston series was over, Hill doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.

In fact, in four games, George Hill has looked pretty much exactly like the George Hill we saw play for the Jazz two years ago. In Games 2 through 5, Hill was one of Milwaukee’s most valuable players, averaging 15.5 points on 61/50/75 splits. Besides Giannis, Hill had the team’s second-best net rating behind only Giannis at plus-15.1.

For being the third guard, Hill played his role about as perfectly as the Bucks could have wanted. His return to form was pretty fun to watch. Hill’s a traditional point guard who relies on his IQ more than anything. For the first time since really his days in Utah, Hill expertly picked his spots, knowing when to go for the jumper and when to drive to the basket. He picked apart the Celtics’ defense effortlessly.

Maybe he needed to take a longer time to recover from the injuries that previously ailed him. Maybe he just needed a few reps to get his groove back. No matter how you explain it, Hill is proving he’s more than just a team-friendly contract. Milwaukee never asked him to play at the level he has, but they’ll gladly take it.

The Other Moneyball Addition

The Bucks have been endlessly praised for adding Brook Lopez on the cheap, and they deserve it. The other cheap addition that has paid dividends is one Pat Connaughton.

Pat wasn’t exactly a nobody when he arrived in Milwaukee. He proved to be a solid backup in Portland last season. Still, even though he’s been a solid rotation player for the Bucks this season, many believed that he was a weak point that the Celtics could exploit. Such was not the case.

The Notre Dame alum brought forth two elements that you don’t see from second unit players nowadays: Three-point shooting and rebounding. In the four consecutive games in which the Bucks emerged victoriously, Pat shot 39 percent from distance while also corralling 9.8 rebounds per game. His rebounding average in that span was second behind, well, who do you think?

By doing this, he proved the doubters wrong and in the process outplayed the much more esteemed Gordon Hayward. Not bad for a guy who’s 6-foot-4.

Every championship-caliber team needs reliable players who come off the bench. Milwaukee’s used various players to try to solidify the second unit over the last few seasons that have worked somewhat. Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova, Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo are a few guys who the Bucks entrusted. At one point, the team even tried using Jabari Parker as its sixth man.

After its impressive performance against Boston, it now appears that Milwaukee’s second unit has found its stride as the team continues its playoff run.

We already knew that the Bucks weren’t messing around this season. They won 60 games in a tougher eastern conference and had an excellent point differential. The second unit’s emergence at the best time should only further benefit the team.

Oh, and Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s second-best playmaker and one of the most efficient guards in the league, has returned from his plantar fasciitis.

No matter which unit he plays with, his return only makes what was already a well-made team all the better.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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