According to the statistics, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the league's best defensive units, despite the lack of Jabari Parker and (especially) Larry Sanders. During the course of this season, a number of articles have praised their team for their remarkable turnaround under Jason Kidd. At the heart of their new found prowess? The potent combination of super-sized limbs and effort.
Having watched the Bucks twice in the last 10 days, there is no doubt that team's length is fantastic at causing havoc. The basic boxscore statistics haven't lied -- their combined 15 steals and 17 blocks in 2 games directly reflect their ability to control a ton of airspace in nearly every direction.
However, upon a closer look of the Pelicans narrow 85-84 win, I was left wondering if this new #narrative contributed to the Bucks being allowed to use their arms for much more than just reach. Time and again, they were able to get away with holding, pushing and arm barring the Pelicans at every turn. A number of defensive possessions, despite being out of position, were rarely penalized.
Let me show you what I mean.
Pictures > Words
1. In the first quarter, with the Pelicans leading 21-9, Giannis Antetokounmpo put two hands in the back of Omer Asik as he was moving into prime offensive rebounding position.
As the ball neared, Giannis' hands are now seen in a more obvious position.
And boom, the ball fell easily into the Greek Freak's hands as Asik upper body is perpendicular with the ground.
Against players his size, Asik can normally still get a hand on the ball, but here he wasn't even able to make an attempt against a player who weighs probably close to fifty pounds less? Sure, Omer might have played it up a bit, but that should not have distracted anyone from an obvious foul.
2. Thirty seconds into the 2nd quarter, Anthony Davis sealed off Antetokounmpo in the paint and the completion of a pass from Norris Cole should have resulted in an easy attempt.
As Davis made his cut to the rim, he initially had the advantage. He was closer to the rim and was the first one to cut towards it.
Suddenly, the separation wasn't there and Giannis was able to break up the pass. A left hand full of AD's jersey slowed the Brow just enough, and at the same time, helped Greek make up the gap by propelling his momentum more quickly in the necessary direction.
3. In a correct call, Omer Asik and his left arm were whistled for hampering a defender from recovering to stop Tyreke Evans from driving for an easy score with 2:29 remaining in the first half.
The reason this sequence is in this piece is because time after time, the Bucks got away with impeding the Pelicans. They used their arms to not only control all surrounding space but also infringe well into New Orleans' territory. The biggest infraction happened to occur in the final play of the game (thankfully it didn't come back to haunt the home team), but this next one was befitting of the word, ridiculous.
4. Right before halftime, Ersan Ilyasova and Dante Cunningham fought for rebounding position on the weak side. Then, DC stopped jostling but notice where Ilyasova's arm remained.
In the very next instance, Ilyasova flailed backwards, not from anything Cunningham did, but rather a sad flop that was rewarded with two free throws.
5. Early in the 3rd quarter, Eric Gordon was hit with a body check that typically gets uncalled, this time by Khris Middleton.
He made the jump shot, but that foul should have been called. Gordon's momentum was shifted by the defender who tried to tiptoe out of the apparent infraction.
6. At the 8:42 mark of the third quarter, Tyreke Evans was whistled for a charge. As Joel Meyers exclaimed, it was a 50/50 call.
Ersan had his feet outside of the circle, but notice the direction he was facing. In addition, Evans was headed to a point not inside the width of Ilyasova's shoulders.
In the moment prior to contact, Ilyasova is still moving. Notice how far his shoulders have moved since the last frame.
He literally twisted right into Evans' path. Both players were moving, but as it was the theme of the night, the referee decided to favor the Buck.
7. Apparently, it's fine to drape one's entire arm across an offensive player's shoulder while reach with the other in an attempt to block a shot? In case you're wondering, Davis made the reverse lay-in.
8. Not even 20 seconds later, Antetokounmpo again had an arm high up in between Davis' shoulder region which deterred him from a rightful rebound.
9. Verticality lives in the NBA, but that notion includes more than just one's arms. Have a look at where John Henson first made contact with this Anthony Davis drive to kick off the 4th quarter.
Now examine how much that one-man wall moved horizontally.
Henson gave the illusion of playing better defense because his arms never moved down; they always remained in a perfectly vertical position. However, that doesn't excuse the fact his lower half effectively warded Davis away illegally.
10. When an offensive player hooks his arm around his opponent, that's an offensive foul. So, can someone explain to me why Jerryd Bayless got to the free throw line on this play?
11. Let's fast forward to the final play of the game and please keep in mind the offensive foul Asik was whistled for (#3) when he impeded the opponent with his arm.
For the entire game, Zaza Pachulia used his arms to play defense -- he grabbed at everybody and everything. I'm sorry but I fail to recognize how this play is any less egregious than the illegal pick Asik picked up an offensive foul. Besides, I could have added plenty more video footage for this post regarding Zaza alone. (For instance, do you guys recall the over the back on Alexis Ajinca that wasn't called?)
One game caveat: I haven't had time to look in depth at any other Bucks game yet, so for now, take this post with a grain of salt. However, considering the amount of missed calls, it's hard to fathom three referees all had an off night. Further, a number of Pelicans were seen swatting away their opponents persistently pesky hands away throughout the period of the game.
Look, this post shouldn't be taken as belittling the genuine improvement in Milwaukee. However, I'm a little shocked to not have read another post that doesn't question the long-term validity of a defense that went from 29th to 2nd in the span of one season. Jason Kidd has done a marvelous job, but I'm of mind that he might have taught his players a number of little nuances that help avoid justifiable penalties.
Following this Bucks game, the Pelicans have a brutal four stretch of games up next (PHX, GSW, LAC and HOU). Dropping 3 of 4 would be hard to stomach, but even more so, if at least one of those potential losses are decided by a number of bad calls as witnessed several days ago.