They beat the Bulls on national television, then they beat the Bulls again the next night. The (5th-seeded!) Milwaukee Bucks (13-12) seem to be a team on the rise...just in time to play two straight against the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers (19-6). The last time these teams met, the Bucks earned a surprising 118-101 victory that somehow felt bigger than the 17-point margin indicates. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the rest of the Cavs are sure to come prepared to the first of two back-to-back games against the Bucks, as this will be the last time these teams play until late February.
As has been the case for quite some time, any Bucks talk starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. With impressive season averages of 22.6 points / 9.1 rebounds / 6.0 assists / 2.1 steals / 2.1 blocks, an All Star bid is almost a lock, and with some surprising changes announced to the All Star Game voting process, Giannis has a shot at a starting nod. If that were to happen, he would be the first Buck to start an All Star game on the floor since Sidney Moncrief in 1986. So, yeah. It’s been a while.
Besides his place in the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player conversations, Giannis is also finding success in yet another facet of his game: three-point shooting. Over his last 11 games, Giannis has hit 12 of 31 threes (38.7%), slowly but surely demonstrating how going under his screens can hurt defenses almost as much as going over them. Fellow stretch-four (and quiet breakout player in his own right) Jabari Parker has cooled off some (36.7% on the season), but is still 9/18 (50.0%) from deep over his last 5 games (including taking no threes in the second Chicago game).
(Speaking of Jabari Parker, be sure to check out today’s episode of Locked on Bucks, where Frank and Eric tackle questions like: what is Jabari, and how well does he fit in in Milwaukee?)
Giannis and Jabari’s success from downtown is a reflection of the Bucks’ recent offensive success, which has met many fans’ expectations for a heightened emphasis on 3-pointers. Of the Bucks’ bevy of bombers, Malcolm Brogdon (42.9%), Mirza Teletovic (40.0%), and Matthew Dellavedova (36.0%) have led the way in spacing the floor. While the team’s 3PAr is still in the bottom half of the NBA at 29.0%, they haven’t taken fewer than 20 threes in a game since November 29th...ironically enough, when they beat tonight’s opponent.
And all the while, as we’re preoccupied by Giannis’ transcendence and the Bucks’ splashy habits on offense, the defense is what has made the team relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Boasting a top-10 defensive rating (105.3), the Bucks’ length has led them to the upper echelon of shot defense, ranking 3rd overall in total field goal percentage allowed (43.0%) and 2nd overall in three-point percentage allowed (32.6%).
While Giannis has been doing a pretty convincing LeBron impression and the Bucks have stifled offenses, LeBron James and his Cavaliers are still the top dog in the Eastern Conference by a wide margin. James is leading the way 25.0 points / 9.0 assists / 7.6 rebounds / 1.4 steals / 0.5 blocks, and he’s flanked by Kyrie Irving (23.8 points / 5.0 assists) and Kevin Love (22.3 points / 10.7 rebounds). The Cavs have also led the league in three-point accuracy (40.1% overall) and are 3rd in offensive rating (114.7).
So why do Bucks fans feel a certain sense that lightning can strike twice? Maybe it’s because Thon juked Birdman onto the injured reserve list, which served as the cherry on top of the team’s first meeting last month. Or maybe it’s because the Bucks are...actually good, as covered by Frank and Eric in Monday’s Locked on Bucks podcast. But more importantly, it might be that Love is an early scratch with a bruised knee, which puts more responsibility on Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.