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Bubble Prelude: Previewing the Bucks Seeding Games

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New Orleans Pelicans v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

With the scrimmages in the rear view mirror, everything counts from here on out. And it looks like things are gonna hold up!

In the short-term, the rest of the (ir)regular season may not matter as much to the Milwaukee Bucks, who hold the league’s best record at 53-12 and maintain a 6.5 game lead over the second-place Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That said, this Bucks team is defined by its professionalism, and it will not take matters lightly as the regular season restarts this week (albeit in an abridged fashion). Let’s take a look at the next eight games and what, if any, storylines we can follow.


(all times are Central)

Boston Celtics – 5:30pm on Friday, July 31

Who’s tuned-up and who needs more time?

For the most part, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like their old selves during the second preseason. Giannis Antetokounmpo was dominant, the offense had some outside shooting hiccups but otherwise was potent, and the defense was formidable until JJ Redick had a third-quarter explosion that no one on the Bucks truly cared about. Everyone is rested and healthy, and the only question marks are Marvin Williams (groin) and both Pat Connaughton and Eric Bledsoe, who joined the team late after testing positive for coronavirus outside of the bubble.

The Boston Celtics looked good too, but they didn’t necessarily look like their old selves because there are too many possible “old selves” to resemble. Their regular regular season was largely successful based on results, but they had their ups and downs due to injuries and underwhelming roster depth. Furthermore, the way their best group of players fits together is particular. Jayson Tatum had an All-NBA worthy campaign, and Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all generally held serve or improved, giving Boston impressive wing depth. Alongside Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, they have a talented five-some...but none of them can play center, and their centers are each flawed.

Boston might not be a favorite to make the Eastern Conference Finals, but depending on how the bracket shakes out they could be the team standing between the Bucks and the NBA Finals. Their wing depth and Kemba’s pull-up shooting are the sorts of things that could cause trouble for Milwaukee in a seven-game series, so this game figures to be competitive.

Houston Rockets – 7:30pm on Sunday, August 2

How does Milwaukee respond to small-ball?

If this CBS Sports article is to be believed, the answer is “rather well.”

Then again, the Bucks (or anyone else, really) haven’t played anybody this small. With a primary lineup featuring James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon (who suffered an ankle injury), P.J. Tucker, and Robert Covington, the Pocket Rockets zoom and zip all over the floor, wreaking chaos for Russ to be Russ within, and ample stepback opportunities for 2018-19 MVP runner-up Harden.

Houston is going to have their hands full in the Western Conference no matter what, and so early in the bubble schedule coach Mike D’Antoni will have his squad pushing it to the limit. For anybody who wants to see Brook Lopez break out the aged low-post game, this might be an opportunity to see how it works against a frenetic lineup of smaller guys.

Brooklyn Nets – 12:30pm on Tuesday, August 4

Who’s suiting up for the Nets again?

The real question is, who isn’t suiting up for the Nets. We already knew that Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Kyrie Irving (shoulder) weren’t planning on resuming play this season, but with COVID-19 casting doubt left and right, the following players also won’t be in the bubble: DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Waller-Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, and old friend Michael Beasley (who didn’t even get a chance to join the team!).

This isn’t to say that the Nets don’t have players. But Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris aren’t yet a Big Three to worry about in the playoffs. Head coach Jacque Vaughn is essentially auditioning for his job long-term, but expectations for the Nets aren’t particularly high. They’re sitting in the 7 seed right now, and given that they’re missing most of their top-end talent it’s likely that they fall to the 8 seed. That makes this a potential first round preview worth paying attention to.

Miami Heat – 3:00pm on Thursday, August 6

Can the Bucks beat the Heat in a regular season game in Florida?

The Heat have long been a bugaboo for the Bucks, and they present serious issues to the current Milwaukee squad. Between Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, Miami has a pair of high-level, versatile defenders and playmakers. With Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, and Wisconsin-native Tyler Herro, they’re liable to catch fire from distance, demonstrated by their league-best 3PT% (0.383) this year. And with newcomers like Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, and Andre Iguodala, the Heat have experienced depth at the wing positions.

They’re a smart, well-coached, and hard-working organization, and while not invincible the Heat are not to be taken lightly. Their shooting accuracy and defensive intensity more than make up for their relative lack of MVP-level talent. As a result, this is a series where Giannis needs to be Giannis, and show off the broad skillset that made him the MVP last year and the likely repeat-MVP this season.

Dallas Mavericks – 7:30pm on Saturday, August 8

How’s that three-point defense doing?

If the opposing team firing away wasn’t a concern with Miami, it ought to be against Dallas. The Mavericks are second in the league in both attempts and makes, and are one of the three teams who boast a higher three-point attempt rate than the Bucks (0.461). Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis present a potent inside-out pairing, and they’ll be flanked with plus-shooters like Tim Hardaway Jr, Seth Curry, Delon Wright, and J.J. Barea (who’s somehow still in the league at 35 years old and standing at 5’10”!).

The Mavericks have legitimate Finals aspirations of their own, and only by virtue of their place in the Western Conference are they not considered amongst the top tier of contenders. They currently hold the highest offensive rating per 100 possessions (116.7) in the history of the NBA, and while they struggle at times on defense, getting into a shootout against the Mavs is usually a recipe for disaster. This series will not only test the Bucks’ wing depth, but also the Brook and Robin Lopez combination; will they simply execute the zone drop against Kristaps and Maxi Kleber (another willing shooter at the 5) and open the team up to getting burned by pick-and-pops?

Toronto Raptors – 5:30pm on Monday, August 10

Will Nick Nurse show his hand or keep his cards close?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We don’t need to rehash the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, but the Raptors haven’t fallen off one bit from their championship season despite watching Kawhi Leonard walk off for the West. They kept their squad together, relied on the development of young talent, and maintained flexibility in how they play their opponents, and all of that pushed them to the East’s 2nd seed and a Defensive Rating (105.2) on par with what the Bucks produced last season.

Head coach Nick Nurse is at the heart of it all for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry is their leader on the floor (and Drake the leader off of it), but Nurse’s constant willingness to experiment, adjust, and make changes created a squad that’s difficult to pigeon-hole. One of the chief complaints about the Bucks’ fall last year was that Coach Bud didn’t match Coach Nurse when it came to moves and counter-moves. Will there be any gamesmanship in this contest, coming so late in the slate of games that matter before the playoffs? Only time will tell.

Washington Wizards – 8:00pm on Tuesday, August 11

Will the Bucks treat this game as a scrimmage?

Like the Nets, the Wizards are missing some of their best players in John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Davis Bertans. They were already an offense-first outfit, and now with their most talented components absent from the bubble, all that’s left is a smattering of young players and the league’s worst defensive rating (115.8). It will be the second-to-last game before the playoffs for Milwaukee, so even if the depleted Wizards hit a hot streak there’s very little reason for the Bucks to put forth extensive effort in this one. Keeping the starters in rhythm and everyone healthy is the main goal here.

Memphis Grizzlies – TBD, Thursday, August 13

Is this a chance to try out some weird stuff?

The Bucks won’t have too much to play for unless disaster strikes. On the other hand, Memphis will be fighting to keep their advantage for the West’s 8th seed, and the Grizzlies are a young squad raring to show out. Likely Rookie of the Year Ja Morant is one of the league’s most exciting prospects, and alongside Jaren Jackson Jr, Brandon Clarke, and Dillon Brooks, Memphis is playing like a team with something to prove. If they have real stakes and the Bucks don’t, then this might be a game the Bucks punt on in the interest of maintaining health and balance for their first round playoff series.

So with that being the case, let’s get weird. Planet Pat at center lineups? Point Ersan? Run a zone that only covers the paint one possession, and switch to only covering the arc in the next? It’s the Orlando bubble, anything can happen! (Not really.)


This is the way I see things going, but what about you? What storylines are you interested in following? Which ones did I miss? Let us know in the comments!

Poll

How will the Bucks fare in the seeding games?

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    6-2 or better
    (160 votes)
  • 34%
    5-3
    (101 votes)
  • 10%
    4-4
    (30 votes)
  • 1%
    3-5 or worse
    (3 votes)
294 votes total Vote Now