As the Milwaukee Bucks' record continues to get worse, their schedule only seems to get more difficult.
That's the harsh reality of late December for the Bucks, who opened a difficult four-game road trip with a close-but-no-cigar effort in Dallas last night. Unfortunately, things get even more difficult tonight in Oklahoma City, where they take on a Thunder team that's won 10 of their last 12 games.
Losses are bad, but I'd argue that Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo looking lost is even worse. Unfortunately that's been the biggest takeaway from the Bucks' two most recent losses, which saw the young duo combine for just 13 points against Toronto and 17 last night in Dallas.
Antetokounmpo looked completely out of sorts after picking up two early fouls on Boxing Day against the Raptors, then was similarly invisible in the first half last night before eventually perking up in the second half to finish with 11 points, nine rebounds and a handful of important plays in the fourth quarter. After barely even touching the ball in the first half, Giannis was the focal point of three straight HORNS actions with Parker to start the third, but it's disappointing that it's even come to that.
Worse yet has been Jabari Parker, who's hit just 4/19 from the field over the past two games and has somehow looked worse than he did a month ago. There hasn't been any talk of him being injured, but he seemed to tweak his quad in the second half of the Sixers game and has looked especially off his game over the past three days -- getting blocked twice by Dirk Nowitzki isn't exactly what we've come to expect of him, you know? I'm hesitant to expect too much given it often takes a full season to come back from an ACL injury, but Parker regressing from what we saw just a few weeks ago is worrying. Hopefully it's just a short-term blip, but in the grand scheme of things it also raises the uncomfortable issue of how the Bucks can best use both Parker and Giannis going forward. For now they're often relegated to standing around on the weak side while the offense runs through Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams, which speaks both to their own lack of initiative and the coaching staff's struggles to harness their talents more productively.
In the good news department, Jerryd Bayless returned from a three week absence with a team-best 19 points in Dallas last night, continuing his fine play from earlier in the season. I can't imagine his hot perimeter shooting can be sustained -- his 43% clip from deep is well above his career 35.5% rate -- but he still deserves a ton of credit for his play overall this season. I would have been happy to see him shipped out over the summer, but instead he's been the Bucks' most consistent guard this season and a guy I wouldn't mind seeing start over MCW.
On the injury front, John Henson missed last night's game after suffering a hard fall on his side against Toronto, though Miles Plumlee once again filled in rather well off the bench. Henson is listed as questionable tonight.
Thunder Scouting Report
It turns out life is pretty good when you have two of the NBA's biggest superstars.
Boasting two of the NBA's five best players, OKC is rounding into form under rookie coach Billy Donovan, ranking third in the West and looking like one of four teams league-wide that (barring injury) should have a legit shot at the title. After a frustrating year spent mostly on the sidelines, Kevin Durant's foot is healthy and his game looks as good as ever -- aside from his usual monster scoring rates, he's posting career-highs in true shooting (65.2%), defensive rebound rate (21.7%), blocks per game (1.3), and win shares per 48 (.299).
Just as impressively, Russell Westbrook has somehow elevated his game even further with Durant back. While his scoring rate is not surprisingly down slightly ("just" 25.5 ppg from a league-leading 28.1 last year), Westbrook is averaging career-highs in assists (9.4), steals (2.4), two point shooting (51.5%), true shooting (56.7%) and PER (30.3). I'm already cringing at what he might do to P&Rs against Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe.
Aside form the obvious superstar threat, the Bucks will also have to be wary of sixth man Enes Kanter, who tallied 50 points and 30 boards combined in his last two games against the Bucks and scored 21 points in the Thunder's 122-112 win over the Nuggets on Sunday. After the Thunder bit the bullet by matching Portland's $67 million offer sheet over the summer, Kanter has repaid Sam Presti's faith in him by posting a career-best 24.2 PER while punishing opposing second units. His ability to crash the offensive glass figures to be especially problematic for a Bucks team than ranks last in defensive rebound rate, though they did manage to crush the Mavs 52-34 on the boards last night. Here's our friends from Welcome to Loud City with more:
Generally speaking, this Oklahoma City team has been very good at closing out teams they should beat. Defensively, OKC guards shots and keeps teams off the free throw line, but also struggles to secure rebounds and generate turnovers. Obviously, the team also generally struggles with Durant and Westbrook off the floor. Accordingly, the duo has seen their minutes staggered a bit lately. But they also obviously benefit from playing next to long-time teammate Serge Ibaka, an effective pick setter and floor spacer.
One exciting development from Sunday's blowout win against the Nuggets was the emergence of Cameron Payne. Fans have been practically begging Donovan to let Payne into the rotation, and it seemed Sunday was the breaking point. In the first half, Payne played in place of Morrow during bench time. In this role, Payne got a couple of assists to Kanter. Then, in the second half, Payne played true point guard in lieu of Augustin. It was here that Payne really thrived, hitting three pointers from Durant and Morrow. Payne's defense wasn't too shabby, either. How Donovan chooses to serve out minutes tonight could be very telling for Payne's future.
The Bucks are now 6.0 games out of the 8th spot in the East, but rooted in 13th place overall. As a result, the more important number is #7 -- their current spot in the projected lottery standings. The fourth through tenth teams are separated by just two games, with the Bucks just 1.5 games "up" on the fourth seeded Pelicans in the Ben Simmons Sweepstakes.