Note: Stats used are as of March 6.
Albert Einstein describes insanitiy as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s possible he was looking in the future, as this describes the Milwaukee Bucks all too closely. Since returning from the All-Star break, Milwaukee has had a tough stretch of games with every game (except one) against a playoff-bound team.
The gauntlet began in a most surprising way, with Milwaukee going on the road and beating the Toronto Raptors, who currently hold the best record in the Eastern Conference. Since then however, Milwaukee has lost five of their last six and have gone from possibly aiming for the 3rd seed, to most likely attaining the 8th seed. There are factors to the Bucks’ slide which include the previously mentioned schedule, injuries, clutch shots not falling, and Giannis Antetokounmpo struggling. Among all these different factors, one consistent theme is the team has one quarter (at least) that looks terrible.
Since the All Star Break, Milwaukee has mainly played 2-3 really good quarters. The issue is basketball is four quarters long so one poor quarter can lose you the game in a heartbeat. The last of that being the 6th of February against the New York Knicks which didn’t look the same when Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL and Giannis took Tim Hardaway Jr’s soul. Basketball is a game of runs so one bad quarter every once in awhile isn’t too bad. But when that bad quarter happens game after game that raises some eyebrows. In the last six games here have been Milwaukee’s bad quarters:
- Pelicans (February 25) – lost third quarter, 38-19 (also blew an 18 point lead)
- Wizards (February 27) – lost first quarter, 40-22 (Milwaukee never led this game)
- Pistons (February 28) – the entire game was just bad after the first quarter.
- Pacers (March 2) – lost 3rd quarter, 33-21 (at one point had a five point lead)
- 76ers (March 4) – lost 1st quarter, 43-31 (were down 20 in the first and 19 in the third)
- Pacers (March 5) – lost 3rd quarter 29-23, (was down 15 at one point)
Milwaukee went 1-5 in the games listed above. These are ones the Bucks have to win in order to move up the rankings, but when you stumble out the gates in both halves you’re going to have issues. As the chart below indicates, Milwaukee has their biggest struggles in the 1st and 3rd quarters. The list above all had the “bad” quarter happen either in the first (Washington, Philly) or the third (Pelicans and both Pacers games). Milwaukee getting off to a slow start then forces the team to operate in comeback mode.
They always say first impressions are important, and the Milwaukee Bucks ought to listen. During this stretch, Milwaukee scored an average of 25.83 points for the first quarter. Not horrible, but for a team with as much offensive talent (including a do-everything star in Giannis), Milwaukee should perform better.
On average, Milwaukee allows 29 points in the first quarter, having to constantly move into comeback mode, with the Washington and Philly games as prime examples (allowed 43 and 40 points, respectively). This can take a crowd out of the game, or get them fired up if playing on the road. At least the Bucks haven’t rolled over and allowed things to get worse; they bounced back in the second quarter consistently, outscoring their opponents 26.2 to 25.5. The first Pacers game and Detroit were the only second quarters they lost, but strong second period showings can at least let you head into halftime feeling better.
You would think that, after digging yourself out of the hole you dug yourself in, you would come out in the third quarter and make the key run to pull ahead, right? Well, I don’t know what they’re saying in the locker room, because Milwaukee seems to let its opponents do whatever they please, getting outscored on average 26.7 to 25.5. The most notable self sabotage was against the New Orleans Pelicans, who came back from 18 points down and scored 38 points the quarter. The third quarter would have been Milwaukee’s worst quarter (in this stretch) by a mile, had they not turned things around against the Sixers, who were more than willing to turn the ball over for them.
The three previous quarters result in Milwaukee being able to be in striking distance to win games. Possessions tend to decrease in the fourth quarter, the slow pace fits Milwaukee’s offense more. Milwaukee and their opponents average the same amount of points in the fourth, at 23.8. If a few shots go down, maybe Milwaukee wins a few of these games and I’m not writing this piece. But after being very good in games decided by 5 points or less, Milwaukee has hit their mean regression.
When going through the four periods in these games, it brought up an interesting question. Are these slumps happening in the beginning or end of the quarter?
Some fans might see the quarter-by-quarter graph and think, “well, it has to be the starters.” How much of that is true? On the season, the starting unit of Eric Bledsoe / Tony Snell / Khris Middleton / Giannis / John Henson has an offensive rating of 110.5, and a defensive rating of 102.4, an overall net rating of +8.1. This lineup would rank 9th offensively, 7th defensively, and 9th overall for lineups that have played a minimum of 32 games played per stats.nba.com.
Unfortunately during this rough stretch, that same lineup has an 85.4 offensive rating (yuck), a 113.0 defensive rating (double yuck), which gives them a net rating of -27.6 (triple yuck). I reached out to Dean (@AllTheBucks), and he was able to provide some insight on how the Bucks have done in the two halves of each quarter. Let’s first take a look at the first quarter, which has been Milwaukee’s worst in terms of point differential:
This would imply that it is, in fact, the starters who are resulting in Milwaukee trailing early, putting themselves in early deficits. A clear example would be during the Wizards game, where Milwaukee had not scored a basket in the first four minutes of the game. By the time Milwaukee had scored, they were already looking at a double digit deficit. While they trimmed the lead, Washington never relinquished that lead. Lately, Milwaukee’s first six minutes leave a lot to be desired, which can explain why the starting lineup’s numbers are so poor...and why the Bucks have struggled.
Le’s take a look at the third quarter which has also been an achillies of the Bucks. Were it not for the Philly game, this would be much worse than it is. Using Dean’s chart, the results are still not pretty.
That is a lot of red and a lot of ugly. Just like in the fourth quarter, Milwaukee was sluggish in the first six minutes in the majority of their games. Milwaukee’s offense seems to suffer the most with the halftime break with their average offense rating at a frigid 88.4, with two glaring examples of 50.4 and 36.4 against the Pelicans and Pacers respectively. The second half of the third quarter brings improved offense from the Bucks, with the average jumping up to 111.6. The defense, however, suffers here as it declines in every game but the two recent games, particularly in which they had a 0.0 rating in the Sixers game due to ending the quarter on a 27-4 run.
We were trying to determine if the starters were at fault for the Bucks’ recent 1st and 3rd quarter struggles. Based off of the two charts above, it might not be causation but it’s safe to say there is a strong correlation. The normal starting lineup has not been available every game, with Tony Snell missing a pair and Khris Middleton not at 100% for one. However, it is a worrying sign that the issues happen during the first half of the quarters when the starters are most likely on the court.
After we have analyzed all of the above information, where do we stand with the Bucks’ struggles? While it’s not black and white, the common theme of the Bucks’ struggle is that they often have one bad quarter, if not two. The starters, who have been Top-10 in net rating, are now in the ranks of teams trying to tank. Your superstar who carries the team for the majority of the season is in a slump, by his own standards. The two other vital pieces have alternated between being “good enough” to “scapegoat,’ depending on the day. while your 3 & D wing is struggling to live up to the first character of their role. The bench, which has been the weak spot all year, becomes the unit that needs to bail out the starters!
While the players on the court seem to sleepwalk the beginning of each half, it’s also the coach’s job to have his team team ready. One false start? You shrug and chalk it up to an off night. But to have it for seven consecutive games points to a deeper issue. Is this team not prepared? Are they not making adjustments? Why is this a recurring theme? Those are questions that the coaching staff have to answer and find the fix, quickly. With the scrutiny this staff already has with the baggage of Jason Kidd, fans have short patience.
There are a variety of factors that are contributing to the Bucks’ worst stretch of the season. Your superstar is in a slump, the schedule got more difficult, and you have less rest than normal...but every team has that at some point in their season. However, I believe that the Bucks’ biggest issue is the inability to start the halves strong. A team that wants home court advantage finds a way to win games they are not at their best. A 50-win team only lets the bad quarters happen sporadically. A team with aspirations doesn’t always struggle at the times your best players are on the court. You’re not always going to have the best start yourself, but you can’t constantly give other teams a head start.