Through the first 65 games of the regular season, AKA pre-bubble, the Milwaukee Bucks played far and away the fewest clutch minutes of any NBA team (defined as a five-point game within the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime). At just 50 minutes, they accrued 32 fewer than the 29th-ranked Memphis Grizzlies and 121 fewer than the first-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s also the fewest crunch-time minutes of any NBA team since the league began tracking the stat in 1996-97. Despite the small sample size, they were straight dominant during those minutes, posting a whopping 22.3 net rating.
Since entering the bubble, AKA bizarro world, the Bucks’ have reversed course. Not only are they playing more clutch minutes—they’ve already racked up another 24 more and have accrued time in five of their six contests—but they are also struggling during the close-game situations.
Milwaukee played well enough down the stretch against the Boston Celtics in their first game to take home the “W.” However, they faltered against the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks the next week.
The Bucks held a 112-104 advantage over the Rockets with 3:14 remaining before being outscored 16-4 down the stretch. It was the result of sloppy execution (three straight turnovers after taking their eight-point lead) and listless defense.
It was more of the same against the Mavericks. Milwaukee led seven points with 2:28 remaining before Dallas scored the final seven points of regulation and the first nine of overtime, essentially icing the game. Defense, as it has been since play resumed, was largely the issue.
Does Milwaukee need to win close games in the postseason to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a championship? Conventional wisdom and common sense says yes. After all, three of their four losses to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals were played in the clutch.
Overall, the trend of sloppy play in close games appears to be an extension of their sloppiness throughout the rest of games; not an outlying issue (I’m not sure that’s any better?). If the Bucks can tighten up their overall play, it should translate to crunch-time—exactly like it did in their first 65 games.