Note: all stats are courtesy of nba.com/stats
The 2019-20 Bucks have aspirations to be NBA Champions. Last year, they wanted to prove that they could be a contender, which they were able to accomplish. Through four games, Milwaukee hasn’t looked like the dominant title contender we expected, sporting a 2-2 record. Sure, the W/L mark is a concern, but the bigger issue is why they are in this position. While there is still plenty of season left, Milwaukee’s primary issue has been playing four good quarters.
Last year, the Bucks had moments where they would find a higher gear and blow teams out of the water, similar to the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. A deficit could flip into a lead or a single digit lead might balloon to 20 in a matter of minutes. Many times, those runs occurred in the third quarter. I’m not sure what Mike Budenholzer was saying in the locker room at halftimes, but it seemed to work. A prime example would be last year’s playoff series against the Boston Celtics, most notably Game 2, where Milwaukee closed the third on a 22-2 run and turned a five point lead into a 26 point lead.
So would Milwaukee repeat last year’s third quarter outburst? So far the results haven’t been pretty.
Bucks have been outscored 116-97 in the third quarter this season!!!— Kyle Carr (@KyleCoche) October 31, 2019
That’s not pretty. Wednesday’s 38-18 shellacking from the Celtics was an encapsulation for what has gone wrong for Milwaukee. The first direction everyone wants to point to is Milwaukee’s abysmal three point shooting. This was apparent in both the Miami Heat game and the Celtics game. In the Miami game, Milwaukee shot 3/22 from three in the second half and overtime, while against Boston the Bucks were 2/18 from three in the second half before a pair of garbage time Khris Middleton threes. Given their reliance on the three, this Bucks offense is always vulnerable to cold spells. So far this year, 47.7% of Milwaukee’s third quarter field goal attempts are three pointers (third in the league); that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it doesn’t help when you are only making 21.4% of those shots.
Last year, the Bucks were able to turn to driving to the rim and getting their points in the paint to remedy the issue. The Bucks would average 14.1 points in the paint, and this year that number has dropped to 12.5. The change in personnel, most notably the loss of Malcolm Brogdon and addition of Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver, along with a less than 100% Eric Bledsoe, have changed Milwaukee’s shot profile and their inability to get to the rim. This has resulted in Milwaukee sporting an abysmal 95.3 offensive rating in the third quarter, which is good for 27th in the league and a shell of last year’s 115.6, good for 6th in the league.
So how does Milwaukee fix this issue? First they might to try and include more players who can get to the paint and get closer shots at the rim. Guys like Eric Bledsoe, Giannis, and perhaps Sterling Brown will need to penetrate more while the Lopez twins can bang down low and get some post touches. Another solution, simply hope that the mean regression shifts in Milwaukee’s direction as they can’t continue shooting THIS poorly every third quarter. The third and most outlandish idea; let Khris Middleton tough shot express his way out of the Bucks’ slump. This is what Michael Beasley specialized in for Milwaukee a few years ago and Kawhi Leonard did during the Raptors title run. It isn’t pretty, and you don’t want that as the default option, but sometimes you just need to get buckets and stop the barren spells.
The sudden steamroll and barrage of threes from Milwaukee’s offense seems like a distant memory, but the Bucks are four games into the season with at least another 78 to go. It is frustrating to watch Milwaukee squander leads and look far from the title contenders we were expecting. There will be more nights like on Wednesday, just like there are more nights similar to the season opener against the Houston Rockets. It’s better to have the headaches in October and November than in May and June.