38 points on 11-of-16 shooting was what it took from Khris Middleton to finish the Nets off in Game 6 of the second-round series. Rather than placing the ball in the hands of its superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in hopes of semi-reliable isolations, Milwaukee rode the hot hand — a celebrated hot hand, might I add, that has made two All-Star games of his own, Middleton.
“He loves those moments,” said Giannis about his co-star Middleton to The Athletic’s Eric Nehm. “He’s never scared of those moments. It’s been an amazing eight years now having him next to me because I know in games like this he’s always ready. He’s always going to give his best, everything he has.”
Brooklyn heads home for a pivotal Game 7 in front of the raucous Barclays Center crowd, and paramount of its responsibilities will be slowing down Milwaukee’s energizing scorer. Granted, Middleton has been a vastly different player on the road versus at home in these playoffs. In his comfy digs, the Fiserv Forum, he’s nearly averaging 28 points per game on 53 percent shooting; elsewhere, that average drops to just under 20 points on 37.1 percent field-goal percentage and 28.9 percent three-point shooting.
Khris Middleton this playoffs— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 18, 2021
On the road:
(Submitted by @keerthikau) pic.twitter.com/Ckm0qrBPNc
Home or away, the Nets cannot make it easy for Middleton... which Brooklyn certainly did during Thursday night’s Game 6.
Joe Harris, who hasn’t had a particularly terrific series on the offensive side of the ball, let his shooting woes bleed into his defensive focus and control. Harris recorded 5 fouls in Game 6 — 3 of which occurred while Middleton was shooting a three-pointer, resulting in 9 of Middleton’s 38 points. All in all, Harris was Middleton’s most frequent defender on 20.2 partial possessions, per NBA matchup stats, and the 29-year-old Buck made quick work of Harris by recording 12 total points when the two were matched up.
This... just isn’t good pick-and-roll defense. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo set up in a high pick-and-roll to begin, and when Middleton “rejects” Giannis’ screen by not using the pick and dribbling the opposite direction, the move itself fails to create any sort of advantage. In response, Middleton dribbles back toward Giannis in hopes of receiving a second screen to create yet another advantage.
Here’s where the play falls apart: As Giannis “slips” to the basket without making any contact on his screen, Middleton takes one dribble to his left out of the crossover; and in response, Harris wildly closes out to the career 39.5% three-point marksman giving the Bucks an opportunity for a 4-point play.
This isn’t the first time Harris has done a subpar job defending Middleton. Even earlier in the series, I expressed some concern with the assignment in a video detailing key takeaways from Game 3.
It appears the coaching staff came away with a similar interpretation of Game 6, at least to a degree. During Friday’s media availability, Steve Nash expressed a strong willingness to alter the game plan to extinguish Middleton’s offensive output.
“You know, I think the reality is that a bunch of guys are going to get a crack at him,” said Nash on Friday. “We will change the matchups, we’ll look at different schemes, we’ll do various things to try and make it difficult for him.”
Adjusting the scheme could be worth a shot. The Nets have been operating in a “drop” coverage pick-and-roll defense for the majority of the series, and getting back to the switching defense which dominated the regular season could certainly be an option. After all, Middleton — for as great of a scorer as he is — is not exactly a quick-twitch athlete. A well-timed switch could shut down the All-Star scorer after a pick-and-roll set, as the switching defender can focus primarily on taking away his outside pull-up shot without fear of a drive.
But even that strategy has its pitfalls; namely, it doesn’t address the ginormous Greek elephant in the room, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will happily feast on Middleton’s defender should the Nets elect to switch. Thus, the reason the Nets have stuck steadfastly with drop.
So what other options are there?
Bruce Brown is certainly one. Brown played just 5 minutes during Game 6 after averaging 26.5 in his first four games of the series. His defense on Middleton, particularly in Game 3, was impressive. It helped neutralize Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll.
When Middleton dribbles toward Giannis’ pick, notice how Brown trails behind the play to avoid Giannis’s screening body rather than attempting to barrel right through him. The magic happens after Brown falls behind Middleton intentionally. He uses short, choppy steps to speed up his stride and catch up with the 6’7” wing. It’s a simple play, but Brown’s hustle takes away the shooting window from Middleton, forcing him to give up the rock to Giannis on the half roll, and the offense resets.
If Brooklyn wanted to go really left field, it could dust off Nicolas Claxton, the best switch defender on the roster and a freak of nature center who has already been tasked with guarding Giannis for most of this series. Throwing Claxton out there makes for an obvious adjustment just because of how much Milwaukee likes to run the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Khris Middleton pick-and-roll. When the Bucks go to their pet play of PnR action, the Nets will almost automatically have their switch-big, Claxton, sitting right there waiting to snuff out Milwaukee’s most lethal three-level scorer, Middleton. It’s like the perfect mousetrap, in a sense.
When I say “dust off”... I, unfortunately, mean it. Claxton has averaged just 10.7 minutes in the series and his development in the postseason has largely not been a priority for the Nets. (His highest minute total occurred in Game 2 of the Boston series at just 17 minutes). So sure, he hasn’t gotten the reps he probably needed to fully feel comfortable out there, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Nic this season, it’s that he’s a massive overachiever. He’s always up for the challenge.
Plus, it’s not like the season is on the line or anything.