CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be smaller than their opponent more times than not – that’s just the reality of the 2019-20 season.
But in Friday’s 119-110 loss to the Eastern Division-leading Milwaukee Bucks, the Cavs showed in the second half how a more aggressive defensive effort could help them compete against teams that are more physically imposing.
Trailing by as many as 22, the Cavs trimmed the Bucks’ lead to three in the fourth quarter. They allowed 70 points in the first half, but just 49 in the second — one of their best 24 minutes of defense of the season.
The Bucks have the highest scoring offense in the league and looked the part in the first half. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the paint, either scoring or finding wide-open shooters. The result was a 57.8% shooting percentage for the team in that 70-point half, including 36.8% (7-of-19) from the 3-point line.
But something changed after the break. The Bucks still shot 33% from distance, but other than a brief spurt of makes late in the third quarter didn’t find as many good opportunities. They only had two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and shot just 44.2% from the field overall.
Below is the Bucks’ shot chart from the second half, per NBA.com.
Once the Cavs started playing tighter, making sure shots were harder to come by, they contained the Bucks’ offense better.
“Our pickup point was higher.” Cedi Osman said. “We know that they’re shooting with high percentage. They have great shooters. That first half, they were making a lot of shots, especially threes. It was wide open. In the second half, even if they were shooting, we were right there contesting, so I think that messed up their rhythm and then we were just going offensively.”
Osman, along with Darius Garland, mentioned how the Cavs played with more pace in the second half. The increased tempo helped the Cavs turn stops into quality offensive possessions.
“Just getting more pressure on the ball and getting our hands active, really,” said Garland. “That really started fast breaks and got early points out, so that was it.”
The Bucks didn’t turn the ball over much — seven times in the second half to six in the first — but the more active defense created more rebounds and the Cavs had six of their eight fastbreak points in the second half.
What the Cavs did well was simply play with more tenacity. Antetokounmpo, the captain of the Bucks’ fluid offense, has the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA, according to NBA.com. His combination of length and size make him one of the hardest players to guard in the league.
But as seen in the video below, Larry Nance Jr. met Antetokounmpo straight up and applied pressure. For a player like Antetokounmpo, stopping him starts with meeting him when he receives the ball.
If he gets an edge with his power dribble, it’s usually a wrap for the defender and anyone else in his path. Nance played solid defense, but Antetokounmpo ended up getting the putback dunk, with his otherworldly athleticism taking over.
“He’s a Monstar,” Nance said, alluding to the aliens from Space Jam. “A real life Monstar. He really is. There’s a reason he’s the reigning MVP, and he made some MVP plays tonight.”
Stopping the Bucks doesn’t really mean taking away Antetokounmpo. With his strength and size enhanced by the lessons learned in five NBA seasons, there’s little chance of “stopping” him. What makes the Bucks better is Antetokounmpo’s improved passing. He’s averaging a career-high in assists (6.0).
Antetokounmpo tied a season-low with two assists Friday night. He still dominated with 33 points and 12 rebounds, but making him a high-volume shooter rather than distributor seems like the wisest strategy. For example, he’s averaging a career-high 4.9 3-point attempts, but making fewer than 30 percent of them.
“You just gotta try to meet him at the point of attack,” Nance said. “He’s got that dribble move — it’s like the drop cross and then he goes into whatever side he picks, usually left. You gotta body, meet him up there, he’s going to hit you with a counter move. You gotta meet him there, and if you can stand your ground those two hits, you’re going to force him into a tough shot. But that’s a big if (whether) you can stand on those two hits.”