Two days after an emotionally exhausting triple-overtime loss in Brooklyn, the Bucks return home Sunday afternoon hoping to snap a five-game losing streak and resuscitate their slumping playoff push. One problem: They're going to have to do it against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
At this point we probably don't need to catalog the Bucks' recent struggles, but just in case you're late to the (pity) party: Milwaukee's Friday night heartbreaker was their tenth road loss in a row and fifth overall, dropping their record since the trade deadline to just 4-12. It's not that they haven't had their chances; three losses in the last two weeks have featured a chance to win at the buzzer, including Friday's game in which they had a chance to win it at both the end of regulation and to close out the first overtime. And so it goes.
Still, it's not all bad for the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are blossoming in their expanded roles, while Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia have also been doing their part. So even with Michael Carter-Williams struggling to find his rhythm, the Bucks' current starters are actually pulling their weight with an encouraging +5.6 points/100 possessions.
Far more concerning is the Bucks' bench, which has dipped from 42 points per game before the all-star break to just 26 points per night since. With key reserves O.J. Mayo and Jared Dudley sidelined indefinitely things probably won't get much better today, piling the pressure on the starters to do even more.
The Cavs have won six of their last seven and would seem fairly locked into the #2 spot in the East. They're a full nine games behind the top-seeded Hawks and a more modest 2.5 games up on the Bulls, though I'll go ahead and assume that Cleveland can hold off the depleted Bulls over the season's final 11 games. I mean...right?
After all, the Cavs are suddenly playing like the team people envisioned back in September and October. After outscoring opponents by a modest-by-their-standards 2.1 pts/100 possessions and winning 33 of 55 games before the all-star break, the Cavs are 12-4 have been +10 pts/100 since. The midseason additions of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov have provided critical depth both on the wing and in the middle, easing pressure on head coach David Blatt and reasserting Cleveland's claim to co-favorites with Atlanta in the East.
Of course, what makes the Cavs click is their Big Three. Assist rate notwithstanding, LeBron James isn't quite the same otherworldly guy we saw in Miami the past couple years, with his scoring efficiency and advanced metrics all taking something of a dip from what we've seen before. But let's be clear -- LeBron's numbers are still phenomenal (25.9 ppg, 7.3 apg, 5.7 rpg, 58% true shooting), and his playmaking ability has allowed Kyrie Irving to embrace the sort of complementary scorer role that Dwyane Wade flourished in over the past few seasons.
But for all of the good vibrations coming out of Cleveland these days, there remains the open question of whether they can get the best out of Kevin Love -- and whether he'll be back again next season. Love's numbers continue to underwhelm despite the Cavs recent success -- his scoring, rebounding and minutes are down since the all-star break -- and he's publicly questioned his usage as a mere "stretch four" next to Irving and James. Few would have ever expected to see Love on the bench in crunch time, but it's happened at times in recent weeks, raising obvious questions about whether Love might take his talents elsewhere this summer.
Of course, Love's existential concerns aren't what will be on the Bucks' minds today. Even a not-quite-his-old-self Love has been nailing threes at a 41% clip since the all-star break, and his ability to stretch the floor could cause serious problems for a Bucks defense that will have its hands full trying to contain LeBron and Kyrie off the dribble.
Jared Dudley (back) and O.J. Mayo (hamstring) remain out until further notice, leaving the Bucks with just 10 healthy bodies.
The Cavs lost the perpetually-injured Anderson Varejao to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon back in November, but they're otherwise at full strength.
Cleveland's offensive juggernaut ranks among the league's top five in three pointers made and attempted, free throws attempted, and two-point percentage, which goes a long to explaining their second ranked overall offense. They're also top ten in offensive rebound rate, though the bigger concern for the Cavs is on the other end. Cleveland ranks a disappointing 21st overall in defensive efficiency, and they're 19th or worse in eFG%, defensive rebounding, and turnover rate. Things have gotten marginally better of late, but the Cavs' defense is still just 16th since the all-star break, hardly the stuff of title contenders.
|2014/15 NBA Season|
|March 22, 2015|
|BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI|
|Fox Sports Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Michael Carter-Williams||PG||Kyrie Irving|
|Khris Middleton||SG||J.R. Smith|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||SF||LeBron James|
|Ersan Ilyasova||PF||Kevin Love|
|Zaza Pachulia||C||Timofey Mozgov|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|93.8 (16th)||Pace||92.3 (25th)|
|102.8 (24th)||ORtg||111.6 (2nd)|
|102.2 (2nd)||DRtg||106.6 (21st)|