I’m not sure you could feasibly imagine a record less becoming of the regular season champs than 3-5. Since The Bubble began, we’ve watched with a tendency to scratch our heads while the Milwaukee Bucks went down in defeat after defeat after defeat. That itch inevitably turned to the onset of dread as the winners of 50+ looked... normal.
Still, the Bucks secured the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference and held tight to the best record in basketball. Nobody was seriously injured during the so-called seeding games. Giannis will likely be confirmed as a two-time MVP and possibly this year’s DPOY. The loss in home-court advantage will be offset by a truly neutral battleground which offers Milwaukee a chance to bring their pure talent to bear against unruly opponents.
Or at least it should. Instead of mulling over the bad offense, the hailstorm of wide-open threes conceded by the defense, the fact that the starters still haven’t been forced into conditioning-demanding situations, the lackluster closing sequences in close games, the vague quotes about needing to “come together” in what is virtually a preseason, a hilarious loss to those Nets, the concerningly poor bench play, the horrendous free-throw shooting, the toothaches, or the Hill-Donte-Pat-Ersan-Brook lineups, we’re going to wipe the slate clean. This is a team with championship aspirations and the league’s best player to boot. At the very least we owe it to ourselves and the journey the Bucks are on to step back and put a few notches on the “pro” column.
So today’s exercise is done in pursuit of happier days to come. Shifting the focus off the doomsaying is always a challenge, but this team isn’t dead yet.
Reason for Optimism #1: Giannis
Yeah yeah, it’s cheating to start with the MVP as a reason to be happy, but sometimes the most obvious answer is the one you should go to first.
The sheer output is what first catches the eye: Antetokounmpo has seen his MPG drop from 30.8 in the regular season to an even-thinner 28.8 in the Bubble (not counting he ejection). He’s only gotten more productive as his time on the court shrinks. His scoring is up, his blocks are up, his TS% is up, his assist rate is up, and his rebounding rate is up. Still prone to a silly turnover in the teeth of a well-executed wall while falling victim to a whistle that remains ambivalent to the physical strikes he sustains compared to that which he doles out, Giannis has not had a perfect start to The Bubble.
However, if Mike Budenholzer’s goal was to see his superstar into the playoffs without unnecessary strain we can only say that he hit the mark. Giannis will walk into these playoffs an essentially renewed man who has had four months to nurse (plus some extra time thanks to a headbutt) himself back to a fully-fledged physical form.
Last season’s Eastern Conference Finals saw him sputter in the face of a truly excellent defense and mounting minutes coming off the back of 72 games. A year-plus on, he’ll hopefully have absorbed analysis and mental calm that can bail him out of an offensive rut. Assuming his cardio holds up he’ll head into the post-season without the fresh scars and bruises of 2,300+ minutes wracking his body.
If you have the best players you’re likely going to win. That’s basketball, and Milwaukee still has the best player.
Reason for Optimism #2: Khris
Yeah yeah, it’s cheating to follow-up with the second star. Humor me, though.
Khris played his ass off this year, full-stop. Nabbing a near-max contract in the offseason did not result in a dip in his production. In fact he set or matched career-highs in nearly every single statistic of note. Seriously, every single one.
Middleton will always be something of a Rorschach Test for those inside and outside the fanbase. Either he’s the elite scoring wing whose ability to create for himself and others perfectly compliments Giannis or he’s a very good scorer who comes and goes not only on a game-to-game basis, but seemingly on a quarter-to-quarter basis. To his credit he has hit The Bubble games running and looks to already be in peak offensive form.
It isn’t just the smooth shooting that has kept pace, but the flashes of a crafty on-ball operator who manipulates past man defenders to free himself or dump the ball off to a trailing Giannis off the P&R or a sagging Brook waiting to deliver a pick & pop attempt. While turnovers have concerningly spiked, being the primary ball-handler was a role put on his shoulders by the fact that the only other options in the starting/bench lineups were a sputtering Donte DiVincenzo and also-rusty George Hill.
If Khris can clean up the passing and truly adopt a mindset of an offensive co-equal alongside Giannis the limits fall to the wayside. He’s gone from good to great to excellent during his time as a Buck. Now’s the time for the metamorphisis to reach its final form.
Reason for Optimism #3: Brook
Crazy how a guy can go from scrap-heap free agent pickup to the guy who has altered the way seven-footers can play on a championship contender in 2020.
His defense has never really dropped off while in Milwaukee and he continues to serve as the anchor to end all anchors in Budenholzer’s drop scheme. Meanwhile, we’ve got to be reaching some sort of post-Brooklyn peak on the other end with this guy.
A .440/.393/.920 split from the floor has seen his establishment as the undisputed third pillar of Milwaukee’s Bubble offense. Whereas during the regular season his role was often confined to floor spacer with a knack for nailing 40-foot jumpers, we’ve seen a total transformation in his activity level in every phase of the offensive game. His usage rate has jumped from 18.2% in the regular season to 24.7% in The Bubble while his proficiency has slammed through the roof. Seriously, go look at some of these shooting stats from the last eight games.
Defensively he has remained the steadfast pillar upon which the entire system of funnelling and stifilng is built. If there are errors that are leading to wide-open looks from outside it can be attributed to over-help from non-Brook players or the existence of a stretch-big that drags Lopez further from the paint. The blocks are still coming in loads and the team’s defensive rating remains a sterling 101.8 when Lopez is on the floor (better than the season rating of 102.8 and The Bubble’s team defensive rating of 111.2).
Essentially, Lopez is reaching his apex as a two-way monster. Assuming the scoring output holds, watch out.
Reason for Optimism #4: The Other Guys
If the difference between winning and losing a series comes down to the strength of your five go-to guys, the above three reasons should have Milwaukee sitting pretty.
That collective headstart opens up a lot of breathing room for the Bucks other two starters: Eric Bledsoe and Wes Matthews.
Let’s start with Eric. He hasn’t been the defensive machine and rim-attacker we grew so used to seeing during the regular season, but he’s also coming off a contraction of Covid-19. It’ll take him time to find his legs (and we can’t be sure he ever will if there are any lingering side-effects like fatigue), but there is time for him to figure things out.
Admittedly, the early results in his four outings have been less than sterling. The jumpshot is so-so, the penetration is here today, gone the next possession, and he’s working off a limited store of stamina to try and match the heights of his prior defensive prowess. That’s not to mention the unquantifiable factor of his emotional stability as the Bucks head deeper into the playoffs; we can speculate that no crowds will keep him in check all we want, but we’re 0-2 on start-to-finish playoff performances from the lead point guard. In many ways, Bledsoe remains what he was prior to contracting Covid: A mixed bag.
On to Wes: It’s a limited role he’s going to have, but one that should serve him and the Bucks well. Allow your other three to four teammates soak up the defense’s attention, bomb away from three, and do your level best to contain the opponent’s best wing on the other end. His .350 shooting from distance in The Bubble is a shade off his season average of .364, but if you take away the one-minute outing against the Raptors that mark ticks up to .368. Things don’t get much more small-sample-size-theater than this, but with the bench guys wracked with a disturbing inability to find the basket from deep a season-average-matching series of games from Matthews is a sight for sore eyes.
That light duty on offense should allow for focused energy on the more important job of containing/funnelling/covering perimeter threats. He had a number of stand-out possessions bothering James Harden, got the call to give Luka Doncic a look, and bottled up Jayson Tatum. No, he doesn’t have the lateral speed to truly keep his guy in front of him, but that’s okay as long as Milwaukee sticks to its defensive principles and lets the center and forwards dent any penetration from the perimeter. Your fifth man doesn’t need to do a ton to be a net-positive, so Wes should hang in there just fine.
Reason for Optimism #5: On-Again, Off-Again East Foes
Hard as it is to ignore the relative shine of the Toronto Raptors in the Bubble (less a trip-up against the Celtics), we’ve yet to see any of the other Eastern Conference teams truly look the part of a juggernaut. No, that isn’t necessarily firm ground to stand on and could shift in a series or two, but a post-season path of Magic -> Heat/Pacers -> Raptors/Celtics should not strike fear in our hearts.
Milwaukee has enough sheer talent to leap past Orlando, can absorb the paltry number of threes taken by Indiana, and have proven that Giannis/Khris v. Boston is a virtual wrap every time out. The margin for error gets dicey against the likes of Miami and Toronto thanks in part to their personnel, but also as a nod to the potential for a coaching mismatch to wreck havoc. Not to say Mike Budenholzer isn’t capable of out-coaching Erik Spoelstra or Nick Nurse; we just didn’t see it in the 2019 ECF. We retain the trump card of the best player in any given series, though, assuming Jimmy Butler or Fred VanVleet don’t morph into Kawhi 2.0s in the next month.
Reason for Optimism #6: Tweaks
For as poor as the record is it isn’t like the Bucks got BTFO night after night. Their average margin of defeat was a whopping 4.75 points even with opponents taking 10.4 (lol) more threes a game and the Bucks turning it over 2.4 times more than during the regular season.
We’ve metioned how the Bucks look lackadasical throughout The Bubble games which leads to frustration and the inkling of concern to find its way into our hearts. Without a tighter approach Milwaukee will surely get decimated by above-average competition, but this is a roster full of veterans who should know and do better. It won’t take a complete strategic overhaul to right this ship, just the kind of focus and energy we saw most notably in the second half against the Miami Heat.
Reason for Optimism #7: We’ve No Choice
This last will be the first one to go in a bad loss, I know. Still, there is a line of argument that would say that we, as fans, are metaphorically contractually obligated to hope for the best of all outcomes. It stands to reason that we then must be positive because to be negative is to be the anti-fan. Again, of all the Fan Bylaws this is the first bylaw out the window by a wide margin.
There will be plenty of ups and downs that challenge our faith in what the Bucks have constructed. We have no guarantee that everything will bounce in our favor and that an extraordinary season will have an extraordinary outcome for Milwaukee. But against all odds we’re here now. We’ve reached The Games That Matter after a gut-punch over 365 days old. If we’re going to experience a payoff for all the energy we’ve invested as fans, it’ll come after this immediate journey.
Enjoy, Bucks fans. It’s all we can do.