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Bucks Progress Report: December 3

What grades do we send the Bucks home with this weekend?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Though last night’s loss knocked them out of their tie for second, Milwaukee’s 8-game win streak rocketed them up the standings from 11th after the loss to Atlanta way back on November 14th to 4th in the East, just two games back of Brooklyn in the top seed. For some reason, people were wringing their hands at the early 6-8 record while be cognizant of the Bucks’ injury issues, but weren’t looking ahead to the relatively weak schedule leading into the new year. Sure enough, the team is now 14-9 and appears capable of winning the East—and the whole damn thing—as we all predicted. We’ll have to wait until 2022 to see how they stack up against the West’s (current) best, by which point I assume the Suns will have lost. Unfortunately, the Bucks will still likely be without Brook Lopez by that point, but when reinforcements boogied into town this week, everyone’s already breathing a little easier. I can also only think of one or two teams that could really take advantage of the Bucks when down Lopez and the odds the Sixers or Bulls will even face the Bucks in the playoffs are slim, with even longer odds that they can take 4 of 7 games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: A+ (last week: A)

Befitting of a superstar, Giannis’ game-winning lay-in on Wednesday night was equal parts flawlessly-executed and improbable. With a massive 40 points to counter the ascendant LaMelo Ball, he finished one assist shy of a triple-double and with a big night on Saturday, could net Player of the Week honors despite resting last night. His other games were a picture of efficiency, with 24 and 26 points on 13 and 15 shots, respectively. It’s easy to look past some rough free throw shooting (primarily thanks to the 3/9 night in Denver) or 11 turnovers in the past two games when he averaged 30 points and 12.7 boards on 67.3% shooting. There has yet to be an opponent this year who can truly slow him down.

Khris Middleton: A- (last week: A-)

For someone who has struggled with his outside shot in the early goings, 40.7% on 6.8 threes per game is a step in the right direction back towards the typical brand of scoring we expect from Middleton. He wasn’t overly efficient, but had a knack for getting to the line the past two games which bouyed him over 20 points despite shot attempts nearly eclipsing his scoring totals. It was one of his better weeks in total this season, though he’s yet to truly break out and has started games roughly (2/9 at half against both the Hornets and Raptors) before some second-half magic, like the way he closed out the third quarter in Toronto.

Jrue Holiday: A (last week: B+)

I expected Middleton to assume leadership of the offensive charge on Thursday, but instead Holiday treated us to a pretty solid 26 points on 10/19 shooting. He hit 4/5 from downtown after going 3 of his previous 13 entering the night, numbers which evened out to a .541/.389/.429 shooting line. No, that last one is not a typo: even as someone who rarely gets to the line, he’s struggled there significantly this year (63.3%) and missed two big ones late in the Raptors game. Still, he’s making strides with his efficiency by hitting half his shots nearly every night in recent weeks, inching back towards respectability at the rim after his performances in Denver and Indy (still just 52.2% within 3 feet this season, though).

Grayson Allen: A (last week: A-)

Now pretty well settled-in as a fourth or fifth option alongside the stars, Allen’s 11 PPG on .553/.450/.750 shooting is precisely what the Bucks require from their fifth starter. His three point volume is about where it was the previous week at 5 per game, but that’s a number both Allen and his team should try to boost. They probably should have dialed his number a bit more in Toronto: it seemed like he had fewer and fewer touches as the game wore on. He even rewarded them with a clutch triple, one of only 3 second half shot attempts.

Bobby Portis: A- (last week: A+)

His white-hot outside shooting fell back to earth (3/13 in the four games after shooting 68% last week) and Portis lacked his usual touch within ten feet, particularly against Toronto and Charlotte. Still, he managed to achieve the efficiency he lacked on Friday and Wednesday by getting to the line often last night, in spite of racking up a lot of fouls. He’s matching or exceeding any offensive effort we’d expect from a healthy Brook Lopez and in certain matchups, he’s filled in well defensively too. I really enjoyed seeing him crush Domantas Sabonis’ dreams over and over again in Indy, a game I imagine Sabonis won’t soon forget.

Pat Connaughton: A (last week: A)

I hardly even noticed his stinker in 31 minutes last night, probably because his other three outings were pretty stellar: Connaughton averaged 13 PPG this week on .559/.409/.833 shooting. On Sunday he was perfect inside the arc, including four buckets at the rim as the Bucks sliced through Indiana’s sieve-like interior defense. If he’d made the corner 3 with seconds winding down to put the Bucks up 1, it would have been a seventh consecutive game in double figures. Given how well he’s shot clutch threes this year, I expected it to go in, and it nearly did.

George Hill: A (last week: A)

While the shooting numbers (.375/.235/.923) don’t vouch for it, this was a pretty effective and efficient week for Hill from a scoring perspective. We’re accustomed to his box score production not echoing the impact he has outside of his plus/minus but he got to the charity stripe 13 times this week; a number obviously exceeded by Giannis, but barely by Portis (16 FTA) and Middleton (14).

DeMarcus Cousins: A- (last week: free agent)

I know that 14 minutes isn't much to go off of, but for Cousins’ first game action since June 30th you can’t ask for much more than 7 points on 3/5 shooting plus 4 boards and a nice assist. As he rounds into game form and the Bucks are faced with an even lengthier stretch sans-Lopez, the question is if he can provide any more of these Boogie Nights. I’m withholding any optimism that he can for now, but I’m not discouraged.

Rodney Hood: D (last week: C)

Nothing good to say about Hood except that he’s soaking up minutes. He’s had more success inside the arc (3/8 this week) recently than at any point prior, which isn’t saying much considering he was a measly 2/9 previously. Plus, he’s on this team to make threes, which he isn’t doing.

Jordan Nwora: C (last week: B+)

He gets credit for a passable 13 minutes of work in Denver (8 points on 3/5 shooting and 5 turnovers) but it’s clear that Bud doesn’t really trust Nwora with more, considering the minutes were available in Toronto and he got just 4. An assignment to the Herd mirrors that sentiment. It’s not ideal to see Rodney Hood getting minutes over him but he’s done nothing to prove he deserves them more.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B (last week: C)

With his brother and Cousins resting, Thanasis naturally saw some run in Toronto with a solid 11 minutes of disruption. He seemed to be the only Buck able to match the Raptors’ energetic defensive play with 4 deflections, a steal, and a block in just two quarter-closing stints off the bench.

Sandro Mamukelashvili: B- (last week: B+)

Due to the aforementioned thin frontcourt on Thursday, Mamu saw 23 minutes of action and was two points shy of notching his first career double-double: 8 points with 10 boards (6 offensive rebounds). Like Nwora, though, he was trying to do a bit much with the ball when it was in his hands. There was a gaffe for every nice moment he had, such as being cleanly blocked on a dunk attempt by the foul-prone Precious Achiuwa.

Mike Budenholzer: A- (last week: A)

Though it may not be as effective against every opponent, Bud’s zone looks seem to flummox opponents more and more as games wear on. Hewing to a 2-3 format, it was at its best in Indiana and while it wasn’t used as heavily against the Hornets or Raptors, it helped neutralize each opponent from beyond the arc after sizzling first quarters. In the last three games, opponents were a combined 22/41 (53.4%, including 10/17 from Charlotte and 6/10 from Toronto) from deep in their opening periods and 25/95 (26.3%) the rest of the way. I don’t think a lack of defensive focus or energy is to blame for foes’ lightning starts so much as shooters’ fresh legs out of the gate, but against dynamic offenses like Charlotte (but unlike Toronto), maybe Bud needs a different strategy on that end in the opening minutes to avoid digging early holes.

Incomplete: Georgios Kalaitzakis (4 minutes), Justin Robinson (1 minute then released), Javonte Smart (DNP), Brook Lopez (injured), Donte DiVincenzo (injured)

Note how every regular rotation player has been putting up As lately. What else would you expect during an extended winning streak? The Bucks’ current 8-man rotation is as good as any in the league (if not better) and should have no problems remaining near the top of the East for however long it is until Lopez returns, a number we will sadly continue to measure in months. It seems probably, however, that we can soon measure another winning streak or two with teams like Houston and Orlando littering the upcoming schedule. They’ll have chances at revenge amidst those likely cakewalks against the Heat (twice this week) and Celtics further down that stretch, plus Jimmy Butler will stay back in Miami alongside the injured Bam Adebayo this weekend. Sounds like someone is ducking the champs! Maybe he didn’t get the memo that Bryn Forbes, who famously outscored him during the first-round sweep last May, is no longer a Buck. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.