The Milwaukee Bucks finally have a little bit of momentum. Can they keep it going in Miami?
That's the operative question for the 18-25 Bucks, who roll into South Beach on Tuesday coming off an impressive back-to-back sweep of the Hawks and Hornets and looking to build on a season sweep of the Heat last year. The past week boosted the Bucks' record under interim coach Joe Prunty to a rather encouraging 7-7, though they still have a mountain to climb in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference (more on that in a moment).
Jason Kidd's return to the sidelines remains up in the air, though for now the Bucks don't seem to be missing him too much. While the Bucks have shown flashes of improved defense over the past week, the defensive end has generally remained a problem under Prunty -- they're just 28th in defensive efficiency over the past 14 games. But Prunty has been Kidd's offensive coordinator for a reason, and since he took over they've been scoring at a top-ten rate. The fascinating part is how they've been doing it. With Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo battling injuries and sharp-shooter Khris Middleton spending much of his time initiating the offense rather than spotting up on the weak side, the Bucks have attempted an NBA-low 12.9 threes per game under Prunty while ranking 29th in total threes made. Instead they've dominated the paint, scoring 51.0 points in the paint per game under Prunty to raise their league-leading average to 49.
Unconventional as it might be, the Bucks' offensive renaissance has reflected the strengths of their young core, with Khris Middleton playing the part of lead guard, Giannis Antetokounmpo piling up double-doubles, Jabari Parker looking increasingly aggressive and Greg Monroe dominating with greater regularity in the post. Backcourt injuries haven't made life any easier, but they've also allowed Middleton and Giannis increased opportunities to initiate the offense while giving Rashad Vaughn regular burn off the bench. In short, the Bucks are sinking and increasingly swimming with their youngsters, which is a very good thing regardless of the end result.
One thing we've particularly liked from Prunty: bringing John Henson in as his first man off the bench in place of Monroe, which serves the dual purpose of giving the starting minutes with a defense-first big as well as allowing Monroe to come back early in the second and fourth quarters to work against second units. I noted over the weekend that it's somewhat remarkable how few minutes the MCW/Khris/Giannis/Jabari/Henson has seen thus far, though Prunty is apparently trying to remedy that. They've still only plated 43 minutes together, but have outscored opponents by nearly 18 points per 100 possessions in that span.
While Jerryd Bayless (ankle) returned to the Bucks' bench in Charlotte, O.J. Mayo (hamstring), Greivis Vasquez (ankle) and Damien Inglis (in D-League exile) are not with the team.
Heat Scouting Report
The Heat are in many ways emblematic of the teams chasing the Cavs for relevance in the East: pretty good talent, a pretty good record, and the nagging feeling that they're just not much more than pretty good. In truth, Miami would probably settle for pretty good on Tuesday, especially coming off a six-game road trip that saw Miami lose three of their last four, including a 99-74 blowout in OKC on Sunday.
Injuries are certainly not helping Erik Spoelstra hold things together, and it's not clear the story will improve much by Tuesday night. Goran Dragic (calf) has been a disappointment after signing a $90 million deal last summer, and he's not expected to play due to a sore calf. Beno Udrih, Chris Andersen and Josh McRoberts are similarly out with various ailments, while Gerald Green and Dwyane Wade are both listed as probable.
Still, Spoelstra's cupboard is hardly bare. Age isn't preventing Chris Bosh and Wade from remaining productive, with each averaging nearly 19 points while posting PERs above 21. And as flaky as he might be, unrestricted free agent-to-be Hassan Whiteside remains a double-double machine who leads the league in shot-blocking (4.0) and posted an absurd 19-point, 17-rebound, 11-block triple-double in Denver on Friday. He's a big reason why Miami has reasserted itself as a top-ten defense this season, with the Heat ranking top ten in eFG% allowed, defensive rebounding and opponent free throw rate.
There's been no such luck on the offense end, however, as the Heat have slid from 21st to 24th in offensive efficiency, a somewhat puzzling result for a team that's hardly lacking in offensive talent. Like the Bucks they're not big threats from deep, ranking 26th in threes made, 25th in attempts and 25th in percentage.
Despite winning three of four, the Bucks remain five games out of the 8th spot and (more importantly) just 13th in the East. While their playoff odds have risen from 2% to 10% in 538's projections, the odds remain firmly stacked against them. The silver lining is of course that the lottery rankings are even more tightly packed: they're 8th as of now but just 4.5 games out of 4th (Suns/Wolves) and 2.5 games from 12th.
On the Heat: Hot Hot Hoops
|2015/16 NBA Season|
|January 19, 2016|
|American Airlines Arena | Miami, FL|
|FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Michael Carter-Williams||PG||Tyler Johnson|
|Khris Middleton||SG||Dwyane Wade|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||SF||Luol Deng|
|Jabari Parker||PF||Chris Bosh|
|Greg Monroe||C||Hassan Whiteside|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|93.9 (24th)||Pace||92.3 (29th)|
|103.9 (22nd)||ORtg||103.6 (23rd)|
|109.2 (29th)||DRtg||102.7 (8th)|