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Five Things We Learned About the Milwaukee Bucks This Week

An instructive week full of both ups and downs

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Milwaukee Bucks Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t found this regular season as effortless as past years. There have been plenty of encouraging signs though, especially over the past two contests. Experimentation is already at a record high in the Bud era, albeit from a low bar. With another slate of games in the books, we’ve swung like a pendulum from the lows of last weekend to a Portland TrailBlazers and Indiana Pacers decimation. Let’s examine what we can take away from the last four games stretching back to New Orleans on Friday, January 29.

The Defense is Under Construction

Last weekend was the clearest example, with both the Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans decimating the Milwaukee Bucks from deep. Their 20+ three-pointers respectively was only the latest in a long line of teams exploiting Milwaukee with the long ball. The Bucks are allowing the 4th most opponent threes in the league and the fifth highest percentage on those. Wide open opponent threes aren’t a new thing for this team, they’ve nearly led the league in them the last two years, but this year the league has found more avenues to beat up on their zone drop scheme. To contest that, switching has played a significant role in Milwaukee’s defensive strategy. There are clear growing pains, particularly with Brook Lopez and frequent miscommunication on switching, but if the goal is to have more versatility come Playoff time, they’re making baby steps.

Bobby Portis Remains the Best Bucks Bench Player

There are still plenty of things I’m concerned about with Bobby Portis. He tends to disappear in the brightest lights. His defense remains a work in progress. He loves to call his own number. But, it’s hard for any Bucks fan to say they’ve been anything but impressed by his production given the $3.4M contract he signed coming into the year. He’s averaging 11.5 points and 7.5 assists on 50% shooting from deep (although that’ll eventually drop). He also just plopped 21 and 18 points respectively on Portland and Indiana. For all the fear of him being a ball-hog coming into the year though, he’s seemed to carve out a role by bringing hustle in transition, providing a new dimension by bullying folks on the offensive glass and fitting within Milwaukee’s offensive ethos. With the Bucks bench waxing and waning depending on the night, Portis has been one of the more consistent pieces Bud can call upon from the pine.

Giannis is Finding His Spots Offensively

You wouldn’t have known it looking at his raw numbers early on, but Giannis was “struggling” to start this season, at least compared to our sky-high expectations for the reigning MVP. His rebounding was down, the shots didn’t seem to come as naturally and he was forcing it to the point of a nine turnover game at one point. Bud’s dunker spot scheme tactic clearly required some adjustments from Giannis, and every Bucks fan could tell he looked “off.” Well, this past week showed plenty of promise that he might be “on.”

After averaging 4.5 three-point attempts per game through the first 15, he’s averaging half that, 2.3 long balls over the last six. That’s included zero attempts against Indiana and Portland. The blowouts helped, but Bucks fans have been wanting Giannis to quit settling so often for open three-pointers and instead put pressure on the defense with measured penetration that leads to buckets or kickouts. A well-rounded game will require him to knock down outside shots, but tamping down the volume is a welcome change. He’s switched up his tactics based on the contest too: in losses to Charlotte and New Orleans, he kept them in each game by relentlessly attacking the basket. Versus Indiana and Portland, he eased off the gas, attempting just 19 field goal attempts total in limited minutes while using his passing and gravity to free up teammates. His evolution is pivotal to this team’s continued growth.

Jrue Holiday is Settling Into His Role

Here’s a great stat from before the Pacers game, per the Bucks useful PR game notes document:

Jrue Holiday has put up 20+ points in a season-high three consecutive games after he scored a team-high 22 points (10-14 FG, 2-3 3FG) on Monday against Portland. Holiday has now scored 20 points in five of his last seven games after having only three 20-point games in his first 13 games of the season.

He didn’t need near that level of production against Indiana to secure the victory, but Holiday is settling into position alongside Giannis and Khris Middleton. The efficiency may not have been ideal against New Orleans (8-17) or Charlotte (7-17), but it all clicked against Portland with a 10-14 performance. That’s been the cherry on top of his defense sundae though, as he’s repeatedly tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player. He put the clamps on Malcolm Brogdon, helping hold him to a 5-17 performance. Holiday has been as advertised, with little offensive dropoff despite the difficult defensive assignments.

Thanasis Won’t be a Part of the Rotation

It seems crazy that we had to learn this, but after a few weeks of Bud regularly slotting Giannis’s brother into the “gets first quarter minutes” category, I’ll excuse Bucks fans for growing a little more fearful over his direction. Well, facepalm no longer. At least for now, Thanasis has found himself removed from the regular rotation and back in his idealized role: as chief usage officer of the victory cigar crew. Back where he belongs, he soaring through garbage time.

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