Asleep at the switch: Bucks bigs get torched by Suns guards in Game 1

Suns star Chris Paul and Bucks center Brook Lopez in NBA Finals Game 1
Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Bucks have a first team All-Defense guard in Jrue Holiday.

Which looked like an important weapon considering the Suns have two star guards.

Holiday could barely take the court in Game 1 of the NBA Finals without running into a Phoenix guard Milwaukee needed to corral. He could have pressured Chris Paul, the Suns’ ace playmaker. Or Holiday could have harassed Devin Booker, who can get as hot as anyone. Though Holiday couldn’t be everywhere, he seemed bound to be somewhere important defensively fairly often.

Instead, Holiday was the primary defender on just seven of Paul’s and Booker’s 40 shots.

The Bucks mostly switched against Paul and Booker – getting Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis dragged onto the perimeter and leaving Holiday away from the action. The game plan produced disastrous results as Milwaukee lost Game 1 Tuesday, Paul (32 points) and Booker (27 points) rolling.

Paul and Booker after getting Lopez or Portis switched onto them: 25 points on 17 finished possessions (147 offensive rating).

And that doesn’t even cover the full damage.

Paul (nine assists) and Booker (six assists) kept the ball moving. With Lopez pulled away from the basket, the Suns had an easier path to the rim.

Lopez is a good defender overall. He is a mountain in the paint, deterring interior shots and grabbing defensive rebounds.

But he’s not as sharp in space. His feet look slow against whizzes like Paul and Booker. Switching leaves Lopez too exposed.

The drop coverage Lopez typically plays, sagging into the paint and allowing relatively uncontested mid-rangers, works against most teams. Protecting the rim is the top priority of a defense. It’s often reasonable to surrender typically inefficient mid-rangers.

However, the further a team advances in the playoffs, the more likely it is to face an opponent talented enough to reliably hit those mid-rangers. Like the Suns with Paul and Booker.

The Bucks allowed just four points on four possessions with Paul or Booker shooting against drop coverage Tuesday. But the looks were better than that. And, again, the passing. As Paul and Booker had room to dribble through the mid-range, the defense scrambled, and Phoenix moved the ball to open players.

Milwaukee’s best option might be playing Giannis Antetokounmpo or P.J. Tucker at center and switching. They’re far more capable of executing that strategy than Lopez and Portis. But could the Bucks adequately fill 96 minutes at forward with Antetokounmpo and Tucker playing so much center? At a certain point, talent matters, and Lopez is one of Milwaukee’s best players.

The Bucks could also keep switching with Lopez and Portis and hope for better results. Paul won’t always be this hot. Lopez and Portis can get a better feel for Paul’s and Booker’s moves.

At minimum, Milwaukee should fight harder through screens. Don’t let the Suns get whatever switch they want. Force them to use shot clock while matchup hunting.

None of these options look great, though.

The Bucks did well this season to become more of playoff team than a regular-season team. Coach Mike Budenholzer experimented with switching throughout the year, temporarily weakening the defense but preparing Milwaukee for these moments. If still holding their prior-years approach, the Bucks wouldn’t have switched at all in this game – and would probably be getting crushed for their drop coverage being inadequate.

But there’s a difference between merely being better built for the playoffs and winning a championship. A title usually requires beating a highly talented offensive team like Phoenix.

Milwaukee might not have the personnel for it.