Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA

Imagining a potential Bucks-Clippers series in 2020 NBA Finals

We don’t know when the season will return, but since we’ve got time to kill, here are the questions that would define a 2020 NBA Finals matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers.

Before coronavirus interrupted the NBA season and all of our lives, there seemed to be a fairly clear separation at the top of each conference. The Milwaukee Bucks were 6.5 games ahead of the next-closest team in the East, while the Los Angeles Lakers were 5.5 games in front of the next-closest team in the West. In plenty of people’s minds, these two teams were on a collision course to meet in the 2020 NBA Finals.

Of course, there were some that would tell you that the Lakers were not even the best team in L.A., let alone the Western Conference. With that in mind, we’re going to dig into what a potential Finals series between the Bucks and LA Clippers might look like by examining some of the key questions that would define such a series.

(Note: We already did the same for a potential Bucks-Lakers matchup.)

Does Kawhi guard Giannis? (And how does he counter?)

This is the question that eventually swung last year’s Eastern Conference Finals series between the Bucks and Toronto Raptors, and it’s reasonable to assume that it would have a similar effect on a series between these two teams. The Clippers don’t have quite as stout a unit behind Kawhi Leonard as those Raptors did, but there is plenty of supporting defensive talent alongside Kawhi, and we have seen other teams implement a similar scheme when attempting to deal with the Bucks.

It’s not likely that Kawhi would handle the Giannis Antetokounmpo matchup right from the jump simply because of the offensive burden he needs to shoulder, but at money time, or if the series gets to a Game 6 or 7, you can bet we’ll see that matchup once again. Kawhi’s combination of strength, length, instincts and fearlessness makes him uniquely suited to give Giannis issues. He can lay back to prevent the drive while also not necessarily just giving up the jumper, and he’s smart enough to simultaneously play toward his help and not give Giannis enough room to build a head of steam.

The Raptors got pretty aggressive when it came to doubling Giannis on post touches, pretty much as soon as he put the ball on the floor. Again, it’s easy to see the Clippers enacting the same type of strategy. It’s questionable whether the guys other than Paul George and Patrick Beverley could execute at the same level that the other Raptors did, but the basic scheme would probably be the same.

Giannis has more counters this year than he did a year ago. He’s got the turnaround step-back fadeaway in the paint, where he presses all the way toward the rim before dipping his shoulder to create a bit of space. He has more confidence in his jumper. He will barrel right through folks and trudge himself to the line repeatedly. And he’ll make the right pass, assuming it’s presented to him at some point. Then, it’s up to guys like Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and everyone else to just knock down their 3s. They can’t afford to go cold.

Which other Bucks scorer steps up?

It’s obviously a big IF, but if the Clippers manage to make things difficult for Giannis, the Bucks are going to need another source of offense. This was the main issue they couldn’t solve last season when the Raptors figured out a way to make Giannis’ life harder than it had been all year. There’s no more Malcolm Brogdon, who emerged as the team’s second-best player for much of that series, which means Khris Middleton will need to be more consistent, Eric Bledsoe will need to avoid another disappearing act, Brook Lopez will need to hit his jumpers and capitalize on his post touches, and guys like Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, George Hill, Pat Connaughton and Marvin Williams will need to space the floor around all of them.

Any one of these guys stepping up on any given night will do the trick. They just can’t have all of them perform below their capabilities. With the entire defense likely trained on Giannis, there should be opportunity for most of them, but Middleton is likely to have the toughest time because he’s likely to see a whole lot of Paul George and/or Patrick Beverley. The same is true of Bledsoe. That means the shooters are going to have to be ready to let it fly quickly and accurately at all times.

Can the Clippers access the paint?

The Clippers are not a great passing team. Most of their offense comes from designing one-on-one opportunities for their best players, whether in isolation or through the use of a screen to get them a head of steam around the corner. That style means a ton of their shots are self-created, and the best/easiest self-created shots are those that come from as close to the rim as possible. While Kawhi, George and Lou Williams are plenty capable of hitting pull-up jumpers, having one of those guys pull up from the mid-range every trip down the floor is not a recipe for a successful offense.

They need to be able to get all the way to the rim in order to get better shots, but also to bend the defense and create openings elsewhere. The issue there is that the Bucks choke off access to the paint better than any team in recent memory. Their opponents have taken a lower share of their shots from inside the paint than any team in the Second Spectrum era, which goes back to the 2013-14 season. They’ve taken a lower share of their shots in the restricted area than any team in the shot-location data era, which goes back to the 2000-01 campaign.

They prioritize shutting off pathways to the rim at absolutely all costs, and they’re successful with that strategy because they have incredible size, length and chemistry; and they also have Bledsoe and Giannis as chaos agents on the first and second layers of their defense. Being able to pierce the front edges of the Bucks’ shell, swing the ball to the opposite side and then get all the way into the paint will be key for the Clippers, but in order to do that they need to be really on-point with their passes. That’s not a strength for their team, but it becomes incredibly important when a team rotates and slides as well as these Bucks.

Leonard’s development as a passer benefits them here, but they’ll need similarly good decision-making and execution from George, Beverley, Williams, Landry Shamet and more. And guys like Shamet and Marcus Morris will need to make decisions quickly on the back side of the play.

Who closes with Kawhi and Paul George?

We know these two guys will be on the floor at the end of games. But who else? The Clippers have a ton of different options. Need defense? OK, you’ve got Beverley, Morris and Ivica Zubac. Need offense? Williams, Shamet and Montrezl Harrell. Mix them up in any number of different combinations to provide different looks. What they need may or may not be the same every night.

But Doc Rivers‘ decision-making when it comes to what he thinks he needs to surround his stars with is an important component of this matchup. Some of those players are vulnerable to being hunted on defense (Williams and/or Shamet), while others could get ignored on offense (the Bucks will happily let Beverley launch 3s all day). How Doc decides to play it tells us a lot about what he thinks his team needs to do in order to defeat the Bucks.

Next: How the hiatus will affect all 30 NBA teams

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