The Milwaukee Bucks closed 2017 with one of the most exciting plays fans could imagine, a Giannis Antetokounmpo game winning dunk over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Hopefully as they prepare from whatever New Year’s Eve festivities they held, they can ring in 2018 with an equally inspiring performance.
After an embarrassing loss to the streaking Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee’s rattled off two straight wins against quality Western Conference opponents in OKC and Minnesota. The latter of those featured an impressive comeback from down 20, while the former featured a role reversal as Milwaukee let the Thunder back into the game after staking an early 21-point lead. Their success early against OKC was predicated on a commitment to bombing away from deep, taking 10 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes alone versus 15 the whole Timberwolves game. Finishing with 29 total attempts from deep was a welcome sight, even if they only hit nine, and one they may need to keep pace with the blistering Toronto offense.
Player to Watch: Thon Maker
Maker made his mark last playoff series against the Toronto Raptors when his mobility unlocked a relatively stifling defense at points versus the stagnant Raptors O. His success there played a huge role in the optimism surrounding his potential this season, but he’s been a disappointment to this point. Perhaps another shot tonight will jolt him back into relevancy for a Milwaukee squad who’s been better off with the rejuvenated John Henson this year.
The league’s juggernauts are well known at this point. Golden State, Houston and then...Toronto? Yes, the Raptors are third in the NBA in terms of net rating, at 7.6, just 0.7 points behind the world-beating Rockets. Their revitalization this season has come from a series of institution changes they tried to institute over the offseason. James Herbert of CBS Sports wrote a great profile on their altered style, and here’s just a snippet of that:
“Before the Toronto Raptors faced a single opponent this season, they battled themselves. In pickup games over the summer and controlled 5-on-5 during training camp, different rules governed their games.
Corner 3-pointers -- where the distance shortens and the shot becomes ultra-efficient -- counted for four points. Other 3s were treated normally, as were layups. Anything outside of the paint and inside the 3-point line was either worth zero or minus-one. This new "shot spectrum," as they call it, was designed to change their habits.”
For a team that ranked 22nd in 3-point attempts last year (24.3), they’re up to 4th this year (31.9). That’s a radical change given there was little personnel change or a coaching change. I guess shifting a philosophy and scheme with the same coach is possible. Milwaukee was also able to take advantage of them somewhat due to their reticence to shift the ball around. They’re improving that more incrementally too, moving up to 23rd in assist percentage rather than ranking dead last by two percentage points, as was the case last year. If you want even more insight on their season, I highly recommend the most recent Lowe Post.
Player to Watch: OG Anunoby
So ya, this one’s a little petty, but Anunoby has been a vital part of Toronto’s success thus far this year. The athletic four out of Indiana had major question marks considering few knew the actual status of his torn ACL, but he’s rebounded quicker than most thought possible and is averaging 6.7 points for Toronto. Most importantly, he’s hitting threes at 41.5% when shooting was his biggest question mark coming out of college. His rangy wingspan allows him to lock guys up defensively, and I get a little salty hearing about his success given D.J. Wilson’s inability to do much of anything on the basketball court this year despite being drafted six picks higher.