Despite a bummer of a Wednesday in Miami, the Bucks are still winners of 10 of their last 12 and close out the year with only a few mediocre teams ahead amongst a lot of bad ones. Giannis surely wants another crack at a W over the Heat before the playoffs, even if it won’t come in Miami, an arena where I thought he (and the team as a whole) stopped struggling in after last year’s beatdown. If Monday was any indication, the Cavs actually might be a solid test for the Bucks the next three times they face off this year. One funny nugget: reflecting his dubious value to this team, I forgot Semi last week in the incompletes but no one noticed! Anyway, he’ll get his INC this week.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: B (last week: A+)
I can understand struggling with the Cavs’ lengthy new interior of Jarrett Allen (who has long given Giannis some trouble) and Evan Mobley until breaking loose in the fourth for 27 (on 9/19 shooting) on his 27th, but it’s concerning that Giannis couldn’t capitalize on the Heat frontcourt of P.J. Tucker with Dewayne Dedmon helping. As Coach Bud stated after the game, it was the same defense Miami has thrown at Giannis for years, but last postseason he showed significant progress in breaking down those fabled walls. Tucker battled Giannis a couple of times annually for years before teaming up with him in Milwaukee and you wonder if practicing with his championship buddy afforded Tucker some renewed insight into how to defend the Finals MVP, because Wednesday looked a lot like the struggles Giannis long had with the Heat prior to last season. Averages of 21/9/3 are underwhelming for him overall and they came on a bizarre .406/.600/.684 line. It might only be two games and he took decent care of the ball, a 6/7 assist/turnover ratio against Cleveland and Miami is really out of character for someone who averages 5.7 per game.
Khris Middleton: A- (last week: A-)
Also averaging 21 per game this week on decent shooting, Middleton sandwiched a rough night from downtown on Monday (0/4) with solid higher volume nights (7/16 in the two games) and made hay at the line (14/15 over all three). He led the team in assists coming close to double-doubles with that category twice, but turnovers were a problem on Wednesday night. While Giannis’ missed bunny with under a minute to go didn’t put the game out of reach, Middleton got his pocket picked by Caleb Martin before getting to halfcourt which resulted in a dagger dunk to put the Heat up 6 with 44 to go. Sure, he sunk a triple after the timeout right after, but in a very sloppy game (41 combined turnovers) that one hurt badly, even if Miami scored only 13 off Milwaukee’s 19 turnovers.
Jrue Holiday: A (last week: A)
No Buck has been more consistent lately on offense than Holiday, whose scoring average this week matches both Giannis’ and Middleton’s but on much more efficient shooting (.587/.483/1.000). His season percentages (.463/.363/.656) are ticking up towards last year’s (.503/.392/.787) and most encouragingly is up to 54.4% at the rim thanks to shooting 9/11 in the restricted area this week. That’s far cry from last year’s 70.4% or his career 61.2%, but a big improvement in recent weeks: he was at 46% three weeks ago. That success extends further out too: he shot 16/21 this week within 13 feet of the hoop. I also was quite impressed with his defense on Kyle Lowry (13/33 for 32 points and 9 turnovers in two games) plus the young Darius Garland (3/12 with 10 points and 4 turnovers) and Tyler Herro (7/26 for 24 points and 10 turnovers across two games).
Grayson Allen: C+ (last week: A)
Quite simply, we’re amidst Allen’s least productive stretch as a Buck so far (back-to-back games in single digits, the horror!) but I’ll cut him some slack since he’s coming off a non-COVID illness. Games like these do underscore that he needs to be doing something for Milwaukee if shots aren’t coming—or falling—his way, lest he lose minutes to Donte DiVincenzo once he’s healthy (which should be soon). He’s been a serviceable rebounder and defender this season but each area elicited mixed results in the two games he played.
Bobby Portis: A- (last week: A-)
Though he struggled with the Cavs’ impressive defensive frontcourt on Monday, Portis feasted at the rim against the Heat’s weakened rotation of bigs each night. On Wednesday night, he benefited from Dedmon’s focus on helping Tucker double Giannis and was the only Buck aside from Holiday to have much going offensively. Portis is effective in a lot of matchups and in quite a few lineups (even without Giannis) but I’m curious to see how he pairs with DeMarcus Cousins,
Pat Connaughton: A (last week: A)
Another week, another 50% shooting line on high three-point volume for the Bucks’ gunner. I’m trying not to take such excellence from Connaughton for granted anymore, but nights like his in Miami (1/5 from deep) are quickly becoming outliers while his performance two games prior against that same team (7/13) are not. I wrote last week about his puzzling on/off numbers, so to check in: he was -12 against the Cavs but +21 in the Heat win and +7 in the Heat loss. Considering his RPM generally is awful when Giannis isn’t on the floor with him, the former number is encouraging in a game The Greek Freak sat out.
DeMarcus Cousins: B (last week: A-)
Each game, he appears to be more comfortable in the drop zone and is blitzing fewer pick-and-rolls, even though he’s not making many field goals. Adam has a great breakdown of Cousins’ initial games as a Buck in his resurrected Wednesday feature (I for one am quite glad it’s back) with lots of game footage. Later that evening, I noticed how Boogie seemingly addressed some of the slip-ups from the previous three outings. What he doesn’t need to address is his continued ability to get to the line, passing, and court vision. Based on this early progress, I don’t doubt that he could soon be a seamless fit on this team.
Wesley Matthews: B+ (last week: free agent)
His return is more than just a feel-good story: Matthews has legitimate value to the Bucks this season. Even at 35, he’s still playing his typical brand of physical perimeter defense, which didn’t seem to slip much last year in LA. We’ll see how he shoots, but now that he’s not being relied on as a starter, he can focus even more on checking bigger opposing wings. Middleton and Holiday already appreciate it.
Rodney Hood: C- (last week: D)
Over a beer on Monday at the Milwaukee Brat Haus, our esteemed beat writer Gabe Stoltz noted that even Hood’s shots during shootaround were missing badly. While he had an impressive and-1 early in Wednesday night’s loss, this was a terrible week from the field (2/10 overall, 0/6 from three) for the veteran, who somehow was +3 or +4 in each game this week. Marques Johnson praised his defense on a recent broadcast, so I must be missing something.
Javonte Smart: A (last week: DNP)
We’ve never seen a two-way player excel to the modest degree Smart has over his first three games in a Bucks uniform. Maybe his numbers aren’t much to sneeze at (6.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 2.0 APG) but I’m genuinely impressed with his abilities on both ends. While single-game individual defensive ratings can be misleading, he posted a stellar 81.8 DRtg in his 11 minutes in 8 different lineups, as Alex noted in last night’s game recap. The eye test backed this up. He also flashed solid rebounding ability and shotmaking in the other two matchups, highlighted by a nifty finish at the rim on Monday. So far, Smart’s signing is a wild success.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B+ (last week: B)
These next two are based on a bit of garbage time. Thanasis had 10 points on 5/7 shooting, 4 rebounds, and a block in 16 minutes on Saturday! Two of those buckets and the block came in the first quarter when the game was still close! About the most you can expect from him, even against a depleted Heat frontcourt.
Sandro Mamukelashvili: B+ (last week: B-)
Saturday night was also the first career start for the big Georgian and while he didn’t stand outscoring the ball (to be expected), he contributed well on the glass in his 21 minutes. While again acknowledging the very undersized Heat front court, 4 offensive rebounds approach the career-high of 6 he set last Thursday, and 3 assists sets one. Believe it or not, Mamu now has as many offensive boards as defensive boards thus far.
Mike Budenholzer: B (last week: A-)
Miami trotted out essentially the same team on Saturday and Wednesday with vastly different results and while it’s not Bud’s fault that his team bricked good looks often in the second game, the Bucks have long been able to overcome poor shooting with success inside. With a huge size advantage (only one Miami forward on Wednesday stands over 6’5”) and Portis having no trouble generating points down low, the Bucks probably needed to dial his number more. While the halfcourt offense famously bogged down at times last postseason, Bud’s sets effectively helped Giannis break down walls by preventing defenders from doubling or tripling him. That didn’t happen the other night and those extra limbs around Giannis were enough to force misses when he got to the cup. Defensively, Miami might have caught absolute fire from behind the arc in the third, but I thought Milwaukee sealed up the perimeter much better after halftime. In the opening quarters, the Heat were missing great looks which were often left open (except for Martin). In the third and fourth respectively, Lowry and Max Strus buried shots (each 4/7) in tight coverage, which is a shame considering how much crisper the Bucks’ rotations became as the game wore on.
Incomplete: Jordan Nwora (4 minutes), George Hill (injured), Semi Ojeleye (injured), Brook Lopez (injured), Donte DiVincenzo (injured), Georgios Kalaitzakis (released, bye dude!)
The Bucks have a chance for revenge in Boston in the week ahead with another shot at a win in Manhattan, sandwiched by two rebuilding (but not reeling) teams. Not unreasonable to expect another 4-0 week if they can snap the Rockets’ surprising 7-game win streak tonight. I do want to ask you readers for some feedback though, based on comments I sometimes get on these. Am I too lenient of a grader overall? Am I too harsh? Am I more generous with the starters and too tough on the end of the roster? Then as always: what are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.