Just a few weeks ago, we were discussing the Milwaukee Bucks likely nadir of the season following back-to-back losses against the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets. Seemingly, based upon the gloom and doom that clouded over the end of their road trip, that proclamation was premature. With not a W to speak of over the past week, there’s not a lot of positives in Bucksland, but we must trudge on and wrap-up all the same.
The Week That Was
- Bucks 124, Phoenix 125 (Bucks Unable to Complete Comeback Effort)
- Bucks 115, Utah 129 (Bucks Get Waxed in Utah...Again)
- Bucks 109, Oklahoma City 114 (Bucks Get Their Hearts Broken on Valentine’s Day)
- Bucks 113, Toronto 124 (Bucks Lose Fourth Straight as Fans Return to Fiserv Forum)
The last week can’t be discussed without the most obvious caveat of all: Milwaukee is still missing its third best player in Jrue Holiday. His health and safety is really all that matters, but on the basketball court, his absence has only grown more glaring. Should it mean they lose four straight? Probably not. Utah, even without Mike Conley, is just humming at a frequency the current iteration of the Bucks can’t touch though. The Jazz have their number, and their continuity is forcing every team to play second fiddle.
Phoenix was a touch-and-go contest. Were it not for a late third quarter collapse, they probably could have won even without Holiday. Middleton, for all his benefits, hasn’t stepped up in a meaningful scoring way without the Bucks lead guard though, and he’s been off the mark from his sterling standards for the past week. Many will call the Thunder one of the worst losses of the season, but the Thunder (even sans Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), had taken the Lakers to overtime a few days earlier and narrowly lost at the hands of the Nuggets. They were bound to have some clutch luck fall their way. Justin Jackson, who is shooting 34% from deep, nailed two deep triples in the final five minutes. Lu Dort, who averages 2.4 free throws per game, got to the line four times in the waning parts of the game. Take that for what it’s worth. The Raptors game was flat-out disappointing, wasting a stuffed box score by Giannis.
I know not many people are probably happy with Bud right now. The team is underperforming compared to expectations and while he’s transitioned to a switching scheme, the execution is under intense scrutiny. Given Bud’s intense appreciation for defense, I’m sure he’s pulling his hair out just as much as any of us fans. That’s no excuse of course, he’s the one who can make changes and the Buck stops with him. Still, I’ll give him a bit of shine for Sunday’s game against OKC opening set that was indicative of the kind of stuff I’d like to see more frequently done for Khris Middleton.
Middleton is coming off an egregiously bad game against the Toronto Raptors, when his passivity really hindered any of Milwaukee’s scoring ability. With just eight shots, and intense ball pressure all game, there have to be more opportunities like this to try and find him some open looks. This was a nifty one, starting with the obligatory Brook spacing in the corner.
As a side note, I know this is a bad screenshot. There’s tons of negative space, there’s barely any players in it, but I CAN’T take the Sargento tipoff graphic anymore. Love Sargento. Love cheese. Love giving back. But EVERY single game the graphic obscures the lead ball handler brining the ball up on the first possession. PLEASE FS/Bally Wisconsin, please make that graphic a little smaller...ANYWAY, it all starts with Donte (cheese-blocked) up top and Middleton has already ran off a Forbes screen, and a little Giannis screen, who’s pulling double duty here and also helping spring Forbes from the free throw line frenzy.
(Once again, SARGENTO, PLEASE GET OUT OF MY SCREENSHOT’s WAY) Next, Donte flips the ball to Giannis before proceeding to tackle Lu Dort, which is probably the only way you can actually impede the tanker that is Lu Dort. Middleton gets a clean release, Giannis snags Dort on one more screen and the Thunder opt not to switch as Dort has to recover in a hurry, but alas, it’s already too late. Middleton knocks down an open look. I wish we more frequently saw this kind of stuff to free Khris up, as opposed to forcing him to have to go at it alone on the wing or block.
On the StruggleBucks
One of my favorite Bucks lifecycles is the cheap free agent signee who turns into an overpaid team staple. No, I’m not just talking about Future Overpaid Bucks Bobby Portis. I’m talking, of course, about Brook Lopez. Yes, Kyle already wrote about Lopez in his Panic? at the 4-1 Forum piece, but I just couldn’t help digging the Sword in the Stone in deeper. So, here’s the fundamental question: what are we talking about when we talk about Brook Lopez “struggling?”
It’s not his offense, which is basically at the same level as his initial “breakout” year in Milwaukee.
It boils down to two things, one of which is obvious:
- His defense. You’ve said it. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it. Boy, that’s a big man to be dancing with guards on the perimeter. There was a reason Bud, master-planner, didn’t employ switching when Lopez was brought in.
- A competent backup. Put away your pitchforks Robin Lopez stans. For all the goofs his frazzle-haired brother brought last year, he’s clearly the inferior player who wasn’t going to see time for any core Playoff team last year. In Bobby Portis, Brook finally has a backup who has flashed enough skills and offers a different enough skillset to warrant some semblance of conversation about whether Portis should see more minutes. In fact, we saw just that against OKC.
So, let’s start with the defense. What’s the deal with Brook this year? Well, he’s not planted in the paint anymore. The team has also been a bit worse defensively with him on the floor this year. His on/off differential per Cleaning The Glass shows that the Bucks allow 1.4 points more per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor. Last year, they allowed 5.6 points less. Indeed, if you look at Portis’s numbers in that same criteria, he’s actually surpassed Lopez by allowing one point less with him on the floor versus off. It’s still early though, so there’s gonna be some noise in there.
Individually, we can all say Brook has maybe lost a step even in the zone drop, but the numbers do say he’s been as good a rim protector as ever. After allowing an absurd 46.7% shooting at the rim last year, he’s allowing 49.5% this year on 6.5 field goal attempts. Giannis has been the one who has fallen off in that stat, allowing 54.3% versus on 3.2 attempts per game versus his ludicrously low 41.7% mark last year. The switching clearly isn’t tailor-made for Lopez’s game. But, we’ve seen Bud frequently opt not to switch Lopez’s action. We’ve seen a lot more 1-4 switching, or situational switching between players. On the last road trip, we did see the full-out switching in action though, and I still contend that Lopez isn’t awful in the one-on-one scenarios.
We see a lot of pull-ups on Lopez in those instances. Who can forget when he got a hand in LeBron James’ face on a 30-foot pull-up and Chris Webber mentioned that’s “a shot you just can’t give up.” -__- Regardless, Lopez certainly can, and does, get super lost on switches, but in general I think he’s passable for a 7-footer in one-on-one situations. Late in the Phoenix game, he actually does a decent job one-on-one against Paul.
The Jazz attacked Lopez switches with quick slips on the roll, or driving against Lopez to create easy mismatches. In general, the switching has seemed to wax and wane in terms of cohesion, and can find itself discombobulated when they have to function significantly past switching on the initial action. They’re ironing out when to switch, who switches what, all of the kind of details that Eric Nehm went through in this great piece.
If Bud continues opting to switch situationally, the question is whether Bud not having Lopez switch as frequently is a complete hindrance to their team defense gelling. Potentially, but there is still some room for zone drop, Lopez has been their best rim protector, is a prime box-outer (although that superpower has been neutered a bit this year) and remains their best option against any truly powerful big men.
So, what about the second piece, the fact that Bobby Portis is around and continues to score at a solid level. There’s no denying that Portis is a more dynamic offensive player than Brook. He runs in transition, he can make his own shot and he’s hitting jumpers at one of the best rates on the team, 73% at the rim and 50% from deep. He’s brought juice to the offensive glass, joining Jrue Holiday as one of the players who got Bud to change his tune on that tactic. Portis is a salve offensively for units that have trouble scoring, but he remains an iffy rim protector.
While seemingly a bit more switchable, he doesn’t have the kind of fleet-of-foot that still lets him capably keep up with guards on the perimeter. The theory behind Portis, of course, is that Giannis could theoretically help clean up issues at the rim. Giannis has been at potent in that area, as detailed above, and I’m sure Bud is wary of removing his most consistent bench scorer from his role. Portis’ most frequent lineup has been Augustin-Holiday-Middleton-Giannis-Portis. They’ve allowed a stingy 101 points per 100 possessions, albeit on a teeny tiny 105 possessions.
I’m dubious that Bud will ever remove Brook from the starting lineup, but I’ll be curious to see how the minute allocation between Lopez and Portis sorts itself out throughout the year. The answer could be that neither is the answer, but we’ll find out within the next month or so whether the Bucks are going to stand pat in their current iteration or upgrade on the buyout market or with their limited assets on the trade market.
With Jrue Holiday out, we’ve got a new third challenger entering the ring outside the “other” category. That’s right, that’s Underdog’s music you hear! Everyone’s favorite try-hard has delivered on each and every penny Horst promised him this summer, and now, he’s under the brightest lights of all: Brew Hoop’s Week 8 Bucks MVP voting. Let’s see how he fares.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (4 GP: 33.5 pts, 13.3 reb, 7.3 ast, 2.8 stl, 1.8 blk)
Top plays from The Greek Freak's season high 47 points: pic.twitter.com/HzZuATik9H— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 11, 2021
Khris Middleton (4 GP: 17.5 pts, 4.3 reb, 4.5 ast, 1.0 stl)
Khris tonight against OKC:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 15, 2021
23 PTS | 3 REB | 3 AST | 1 BLK | 1 STL pic.twitter.com/qAR1ppR33p
Bobby Portis (4 GP: 16.0 pts, 6.5 reb, 1.3 stl)
Bobby with energy off the bench:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 15, 2021
21 PTS | 6 REB | 3 STL | 64% FG pic.twitter.com/dIw7PJnHz5
Week 8: The Bucks MVP was...
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Thanks for reading the wrap-up this week! As an editorial note, the weekly wrap-up will be on hiatus next week, but will return for one last iteration before the “All-Star Break.”