Good news: the Milwaukee Bucks have gotten progressively better in the first three games of their current four-game winning streak. Bad news: they set the bar impossibly low with a blowout loss to the Lakers on Tuesday, and since then mere improvement hasn't been good enough to beat the likes of the Clippers and Warriors.
With their road losing streak now stretched to an abysmal 12 games, the Bucks get one last chance to (sort of) redeem their Western trip on Sunday afternoon in Phoenix, and it comes against former Buck Brandon Knight and the frisky Phoenix Suns. Today's matinee also marks Jabari Parker's first time in Phoenix since tearing his ACL in the Bucks' buzzer-beating win over the Suns last December 15 -- precisely 370 days ago. You want subplots? You got 'em.
After a one-game experiment/message-sending/whatever it was, Jason Kidd reinstated Giannis Antetokounmpo to the starting lineup on Friday night, which along with the return of Greg Monroe (sprained knee) meant our first look at the "old" starting five since a blowout loss in Orlando on November 27. The results? Not bad at all.
Despite talking all week about giving the Bucks their comeuppance, the Warriors couldn't stop the Bucks from piling up 70 first half points and leading by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter, though they still had enough in the tank to eventually blitz the Bucks into submission with a 36-19 fourth quarter. Giannis responded to his promotion with his first 20-point game since December 5 and MCW scored 24 on 18 shots, providing plenty of substance after rubbing the Warriors the wrong way with his late-game celebrations last Saturday.
Though they struggled to hurt the Warriors from deep, the Bucks were confident in their attacks and precise with their passes, once again begging the question of why they only seem to play like that against the defending champs. But the interesting thing is that their current starting five has been remarkably efficient on the offense end all season:
Steph/Klay/Barnes/Dray/Bogut score 110.2 pts/100. MCW/Khris/Giannis/Jabari/Moose score 109.8. Difference? Bucks' 5 is *19* pts worse on D.— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) December 20, 2015
Weird, right? Despite compressing the court with their lack of spacing, the Bucks' young group has been remarkably effective by punishing teams inside, averaging 68 points per 48 minutes as a group. To put that in perspective, the Bucks overall average 47.6 paint points per game, which is second in the league behind the Kings (48.0). The biggest challenge offensively is being able to do that all game long; anecdotally, it does seem like teams wall off the paint on the Bucks more and more as the game goes on. In some ways playing them normally might be the worst option -- with heavy ball pressure they struggle to get into their sets, while if you completely sag off them they're usually afraid to shoot jumpers and struggle to get easy shots in the paint.
The bigger issue however is on the defensive end, where the Bucks' starters have been absolutely destroyed, conceding 50.5% shooting overall and 51.7% shooting from three. Basically they haven't done anything well, which is even more curious when you consider that Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe -- the theoretical weak defensive links -- have a better defensive rating as a pairing than the Bucks do overall as a team. As Eric Nehm suggested on a recent podcast, it's as if adding a gambling, inconsistent defender like MCW into the mix pushes them over a cliff -- MCW/Parker/Monroe lineups allow nearly 10 pts/100 more than all lineups with Parker and Monroe.
Suns Scouting Report
The 12-16 Suns enter today's game not too much better than the Bucks in terms of wins and losses, but in the shallower West (really!) that means they're still just 1.5 games back of the final playoff spot. Moreover, they've been a much more competitive team overall, with an expected won-loss of 14-14 based on point differential (the Bucks would be just 8-20 by that metric).
As you've probably heard, central to the Suns' success to date has been the play of their twin combo guards Knight and Eric Bledsoe. After a hot start, Knight's per minute and efficiency numbers (17.5 PER, 54% true shooting) are basically the same or slightly under where they were last year in Milwaukee, though that's certainly not a bad thing -- especially give how affordable his five-year, $70 million deal will be looking once the NBA's cap explosion happens over the next two summers. While Bledsoe leads the Suns in scoring (22.0), assists (6.6), steals (2.1) and turnovers (3.7), Knight isn't far behind with 19.9 points, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.3 turnovers per contest. You can bet both Knight and MCW will be eager to outplay the other today, and based on past history you'd have to give the edge to Knight (should be a great afternoon in the comments section, eh?).
Up front the Suns haven't enjoyed quite the same success. Perpetual malcontent Markieff Morris snapped a string of DNP-CDs by coming off the bench in last night's win over the Pelicans, though all indications are that he'll be gone by the trade deadline. Moreover, he hasn't played well enough to justify starting over the likes of former Buck and Badger Jon Leuer, who has found a nice niche in the desert as a floor-stretching big (40.4% threes) who has actually started to rebound a bit too (10.3 rebs/36). Throw in Mirza Teletovic (44.3% from deep) and it's no surprise that the Suns are among the league's best three point-shooting teams by both volume and accuracy standards, though aside from P.J. Tucker at the three they're not a bunch of bruisers either.
In the middle, free agent signing Tyson Chandler still rebounds at an elite level, but his rim-rolling game hasn't translated while playing with Knight and Bledsoe. He's also a 33-year-old in the first year of a four-year deal, so that could get ugly. Former fifth overall pick Alex Len has made some progress as Chandler's understudy, though the 22-year-old remains a long way from proving he can be the franchise center many hoped he might be on draft night in 2013. On the upside, he's coming off a 19-point, 13-rebound night against the Pelicans, his best line of the season.