Advertisement

Improved defense under coach Doc Rivers has helped the Bucks surge since the All-Star break

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Doc Rivers left broadcasting behind when he took over as the Milwaukee Bucks’ coach at midseason, but he remains as talkative as ever.

That chattiness has helped the Bucks dramatically improve their defense since his arrival in late January. The Bucks have won six straight games and own the NBA’s best defensive rating since the All-Star break.

“It’s a lot of talking with Doc,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said Monday night after the Bucks rallied for a 113-106 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers without injured two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Sometimes we get on the court and we’re supposed to be starting practice, and Doc will talk for 15 minutes straight.”

Lillard detailed the way Rivers will tell players about their responsibilities in certain situations while explaining how their roles fit into the overall defensive scheme.

“Sometimes you need what we want to happen to make sense verbally,” Lillard said. “Then we walk through it, and then you get an understanding of it. And that’s how you build that faith and that belief, and you get on the same page. I think he’s created an environment where everybody understands. Everything is clear. We walk through it 10, 15 times in practice, and then we’re able to go out there and execute it because of how it’s being delivered to us.”

Milwaukee staggered into the All-Star break, going 3-7 in its first 10 games under Rivers, who left his job at ESPN to take over the Bucks after the firing of Adrian Griffin. But the Bucks haven’t lost since the break and have moved into second place in the Eastern Conference, behind the Boston Celtics.

Although the Bucks were 30-13 when Griffin was dismissed, their struggles on defense cast doubt on their viability as a title contender. Under Griffin, the Bucks ranked 21st in the league in defensive rating, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions.

They’ve come a long way over the last few weeks.

Their six-game winning streak included four straight games in which they allowed fewer than 100 points, the first such streak for the Bucks since February 2018. Milwaukee has allowed below 100 points in six of its last 10 games after doing that just once in its first 52 contests.

The Bucks finally gave up more than 100 points Monday against the Clippers while Antetokounmpo was out with left Achilles tendinitis, but they still showed their adaptability by utilizing a zone during their comeback. The Bucks have improved defensively even without three-time All-Star Khris Middleton, who has missed 11 straight games with a sprained left ankle.

Players say Rivers simplified things and clarified everyone’s assignments on defense.

“Everything is black and white,” guard Malik Beasley said. “There’s no gray areas. We know what we’re doing on back picks. We know what we’re doing on pick-and-rolls. We know who’s doing what and who’s doing this. It’s starting to become second nature. When you have a good defensive team like that, that’s what happens. Everybody’s connected, just like on offense.”

Milwaukee also boosted its perimeter defense by acquiring Patrick Beverley, a three-time All-Defensive Team selection. The Bucks already had plenty of defensive firepower in the frontcourt with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, who finished second in last year’s Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Rivers believes the Bucks’ defense can get even better.

“Our catch-and-shoot defense still has to improve,” Rivers said. “Our recognition of bad matchups has to improve. And then at the basket, I think we can be a little more physical if they will allow us to be.”

The Bucks face a major test to maintain that No. 2 spot in the East as they enter a difficult portion of their schedule. They open a four-game California trip Wednesday at Golden State. Ten of their next 11 contests are against teams with winning records.

Milwaukee faced a similarly tough stretch immediately after Rivers’ arrival and struggled. The team appears much more prepared for this latest challenge.

“We’ve simplified a lot of things,” Lillard said. “We’ve, I guess, just bought into some of the schemes. I don’t think the guys weren’t bought in (before) but I think we’re seeing that it’s working. We’re seeing that it fits for us.”

___

AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA