Let’s start off with a few facts. The Milwaukee Bucks are 54-14, and lead the Toronto Raptors by five games for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks have also lost two consecutive games (a heartbreaker against Houston and a blunder against Brooklyn), and are 2-6 in their last eight regular season games. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has not played a huge amount in those games (missing two of them, averaging below 30 minutes played), but the record is the record, and some Bucks fans are getting concerned.
To be clear, this article is not one that expresses concern. Much of the worries surrounding Milwaukee ignores context, and the team’s top priority remains the same as it was when the season restarted: establish momentum, prepare for the playoffs, and above all else stay healthy. These goals seem straightforward but are easier said than done, considering the entire team is stuck inside a bubble away from their families, and two major contributors (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton) are still ramping up after arriving in Orlando late.
Overall, the Bucks are fine. But these last two losses highlight areas of opportunity for the Bucks to improve upon, lest their opponents seize the opportunity to fuel an upset in the playoffs.
Much and more has been made of the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense: pack the paint and wall off the rim, and let your shooters try and beat them. Across the last two seasons, this has been a winning formula for the Bucks; after leading the league in defensive rating (105.2) last season, they lead the league again with a lower defensive rating (102.3) right now.
“But the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals!” critics may counter with, and that’s fine. It is well-established that the Bucks’ tolerance for three-point attempts can burn them in a game. You can’t take away everything, and reducing points in the paint and at the free throw line is what works, 7 times out of 10.
But 7 out of 10 isn’t what matters, but 4 out of 7, and as the sample size gets smaller, variance gets larger. Moreover, the unique environment of the Orlando bubble creates a minor disadvantage for the Bucks, since it seems to be a comfortable setting for shooters. Overall, shooting proficiency is on the rise, and there’s simply no comparison between pixels on a screen versus people on their feet. Or in this case, their mother’s lap.
What do the numbers say about shooting in the bubble? To find the answer, I took each of the 22 participating teams’ regular season averages from before the season stoppage, and put them up against their averages since the restart. Admittedly, the latter has a tiny sample size (most teams have only played 3 games), but it’s where we’re at right now and it at least shows how teams are acclimating to the environment.
You can see in the chart above that, in general, teams have increased the number of threes they’re taking in the bubble (which obviously increases the general number of threes taken by opponents in turn). Milwaukee is one of these teams, taking nearly four more (+3.7) three-point attempts per game, behind only the Rockets (+9.7), Grizzlies (+6.9), Nets (+6.1), Heat (+4.2), and Clippers (+4.1). They have not kept up with the trends on the other side, however, allowing over thirteen more (+13.1) attempts from their opponents in the last three games. Admittedly, this is fueled by playing back-to-back games against two of the three teams who have increased their attempts the most (Houston and Brooklyn), and we also have to remember that the Milwaukee defense allows more threes by design, creating a cycle of more and more attempts being generated.
Still, the trend does not seem to be reversing anytime soon, and as time goes on and shots continue to fly from long range, the Bucks will have to contend with the reality that this is their Achilles heel on defense, and hope that their own shooters will be able to convert enough to keep pace.
Milwaukee boasts a culture of professionalism and maturity, which has helped support the chemistry that the roster has enjoyed since Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach. However, since the restart, this professional outfit has played more sloppy than usual, and it has reflected in the number of turnovers generated on offense.
In general, Milwaukee commits slightly more turnovers than the average NBA team, in some part because Giannis is liable to get called for a charge or two per game (regardless of the accuracy of said calls). In the restart, though, Giannis’ offensive fouls seem to have become contagious, and the Bucks’ turnover averages have increased as a result.
On average, personal foul totals are way up in Orlando; before the stoppage, teams averaged 20.6 fouls committed per game. Here in the bubble, that number has jumped up to 25.1, and the Bucks’ averages have followed suit (increasing from 19.2 to 22.7). For whatever reason, officials are quicker to whistle contact, and this has helped fuel the number of offensive fouls the Bucks are penalized with, which double as turnovers (3 against Boston, 5 against Brooklyn).
Rust is expected after such a long layoff and the reintegration of important contributors who weren’t a part of the original travel party. However, the Bucks’ advantage in terms of pace (105.1, first in the NBA) is mitigated by gifting additional possessions to the opponent. This may also simply be a symptom of playing against three teams who deployed small lineups, whether based on talent (Boston), scheme (Houston), or necessity (Brooklyn), where rim protection is executed on a horizontal plane rather than a vertical one. I am far more interested in monitoring this part of the Bucks’ performance than anything else going forward.
To reiterate, I think the Bucks are absolutely fine in the long run. But you might not agree, and we want to hear from you! Vote in the poll below and tell us what you think in the comments.
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