Just three games to go off of this week, and while one of them sure wasn’t pretty, it’s another undefeated edition of the progress report. Throughout this 7 game win streak, and this won-13-of-14 stretch, the Bucks have won in a variety of ways: made comebacks from double-digit deficits, blown teams out, won ugly, fought off a comeback... hey, they happened to do all of those this week alone! I actually find this preferable to previous iterations of the Budball Bucks who, for all their successes, really only could blow teams out and were rarely comeback artists. Here are some grades, with a new face in class.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A- (Last week: A+)
To no one’s surprise, the Greek Freak won another Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday. After missing the Indiana game on Monday, he likely won’t sweep those awards in March, though he should still have a shot at Player of the Month. Saturday’s effort against the Spurs was another near triple-double (a rebound short) with an impressive 15 dimes, but the knee sprain he sustained puts a damper on things. While it’s seemingly minor as he missed just a game, Giannis was not quite at 100% against Boston on Wednesday, and that’s not merely because of the lackluster (for him) stat line. He passed out of usual bread-and-butter looks at the rim after turning loose from the dunker spot, though he did have a couple of his usual wall-busting, and-1 drives. Bud rested him quite a bit until the game got close in the 4th and he ended up at 33 minutes, a typical workload for him, so it’s likely the training staff signed off on his knee pre-game. I’ll reserve judgment on his health until we see how he comes out tomorrow night, another game removed from the tweak.
Khris Middleton: A (Last week: B)
If this productive week is any indication, Middleton seems to have shaken off his midseason swoon. He uncharacteristically missed 3 free throws against Boston, but the Bucks won by 2 and I’ll end my criticism of him there. His three-point stroke is back (9/14) from its short absence and everything else is falling efficiently too (61.1 TS% and 60.5% eFG% this week); very impressive percentages when you consider that outside of the Indy contest—sans NBA block leader Myles Turner—he rarely went to the rim and worked heavily in the midrange. Middleton also notched a team-high 13 boards on Wednesday and looked comfortable distributing again in each game, an area which had been lacking recently. What’s even more promising for the team is that he was the leading man for Milwaukee in really just one game this week...
Jrue Holiday: A (Last week: A)
This guy was the other. An absolute monster 28 point, 14 assist, 5/6 from deep night against his Pacer brothers following up a great game Saturday makes me overlook Holiday’s less-efficient 13 point, 16 shot effort on Wednesday. 20.7 per game on 57.1% beyond the arc is sensational from your third offensive option, who assumed the top dog role on Monday in Giannis’ absence, as a third option should. My only nit to pick was his (and Donte’s) inability to stop Kemba Walker for much of that Boston game, but Kemba gave Eric Bledsoe fits for years so perhaps this is less of a personnel issue. Regardless, this may be the only time this year Holiday’s offensive exploits vastly outdo his typically-stifling perimeter defense, and that’s something you’d have rarely said about previous Bucks point guards, if ever.
Brook Lopez: A (Last week: A)
The bad: 2/12 from deep. The good: everything else. Lopez is not the night-to-night threat from deep he was in 2018–19—his 36.5% now looks like a slight outlier among other seasons around 34%— but for the first time in his Bucks tenure, the big man is a consistently reliable offensive weapon: he’s been in double figures for 12 straight contests (his longest streak in Milwaukee had been 9). From his years running the Nets’ offense down low, he possesses an arsenal of effective shots inside the arc which I actually have huge confidence in. Call me crazy, but every time I see him wind up one of his plodding drives to the rim, I feel content because I know he’ll bury the hook or floater he lofts up. The Bucks like to let Lopez go to work in this manner early in games often, so he’s recorded some big first quarters lately. But he’s also been seeing some serious fourth-quarter run recently—even against a small Boston closing lineup—because yes, he is still an outstanding interior defender. Look no further than his block on Marcus Smart with 2 seconds left on Wednesday.
Donte DiVincenzo: A- (Last week: A-)
DDV shook off a bit of a stinker on Saturday night (efficiency-wise) and ended his week white-hot against Boston, but despite lighter scoring efforts against San Antonio and Indiana, he was prolific on the glass with identical 13 rebound lines in those games. DiVincenzo’s athleticism can cost him at times—by gambling on defense or trying to do too much on offense, for instance—but when he channels it toward rebounding and help defense (on-ball is not his strong suit, despite his general effectiveness on that end) he looks like a legit NBA starter. This week he played within himself and perhaps struggled less at the rim as a result, relying instead on his improved jumper to great effect. When he provides concrete contributions instead of just “doing stuff,” he fits in well as a fifth starter that can pick up the slack from Lopez, Holiday, or even Khris if necessary. When that isn’t needed, and thankfully it hasn’t been lately, these are the type of performances you like to see.
Bobby Portis: A (Last week: B-)
I don’t care that the Celtics are below .500, I’m here to reward Portis for having a big game against a contender. He even made some nice defensive plays down the stretch in that one! The Spurs game was nothing special, but the 18 point double-double against Indy seals his first A in these meaningless grades. Like Lopez, Portis has a knack for the in-between, 8–12 foot shots that feel so reliable when he drives toward the paint. If the defense has the rim locked up, his pull-up jumper is very pure and smaller defenders hardly can contest it—that has real value. When the game slows down in the playoffs and chances at the rim are even more scarce, I can see Portis knocking down some Js to buoy the Bucks during a stretch that the offense needs a boost or while Giannis sits.
P.J. Tucker: B+ (Last week: n/a)
Welcome back to contention! Tucker has long been a player whose impact is not shown by box score numbers (3 points, 6 boards, 1 assist in 3 games), but those who are watching the Bucks regularly quickly saw his value, particularly on Wednesday evening (and no, I’m not talking about the corner three he hit). He avoided the Tony Snell-special on Monday, though he injured his ankle so I’m striking that one from the record. Instead, let’s talk about Wednesday night. Jaylen Brown was off to a quick start with 10 points in the game’s first 6 minutes. Enter Pops Jr. Tucker (yes, that’s what P.J. stands for). Brown got two more layups but was then scoreless until midway through the third, and even then PJT blocked his subsequent shot attempt. Not only did the newest Buck cool off Brown, but he was also switching between Tatum (who once again, the Bucks froze) and Walker in the fourth quarter keeping the Bucks lead in double digits. Last night Tucker only shared the floor with Giannis for a mere 3 minutes and functioned primarily as his sub—perhaps in an effort to protect Antetokounmpo’s knee. I hope to see some lineups with them together soon once both are fully healthy because lineups with Tucker and Giannis at the 4 and 5 sound pretty useful come playoff time. It is then that I believe the Tucker trade will be judged as the most consequential deadline move among East playoff teams, even though the Heat’s Oladipo trade grabbed those headlines yesterday.
Pat Connaughton: A (Last week: A-)
Connaughton is crushing it: his 90.0 TS% this week is number two league-wide among all players who played at least 25 minutes per night, highlighted by his 20 point spot start against Indy when he sank 6 of his 7 3PA. Sure, he had a quiet shooting night against Boston compared to the previous two games, but he again contributed off the glass with 6 boards, and he averaged 7 of those on the week. I don’t know how Connaughton went from a below-average distance shooter in such a short offseason with no preseason, but if you ask me, the improvement looks to be for real. I’m optimistic that for the first time since the Celtics series in 2019, he’ll be a useful player this postseason who justifies the minutes Bud will surely give him, plus and that contract.
Bryn Forbes: B+ (Last week: B)
Forbes was money off the bench in his two games shooting 50% from deep, but the best part was that of his 15 shots, all but 3 were from behind the arc (and he was 2/3 on the ones inside!) I’m of the perhaps-unpopular opinion that Forbes’ midrange game is solid, but I do prefer him to be taking at least two-thirds of his shots from deep, and this week that volume was 80%. Though the Bucks shot the three-ball very well on Wednesday, they could have used him for stretches in the second half when they went cold. Hope his toe is alright.
Sam Merrill: B (Last week: INC)
The rook played 15 minutes this week, and 9 of them weren’t garbage time! Filling in for Bryn Forbes on Wednesday, Merrill saw second and fourth quarter minutes when the game was certainly not decided. He hit one of his 3 triples, and though he got beat once or twice on defense, we’ll call it a win. He’s seen the court in 5 games this month: a step up from long periods of DNP-CD or not dressing earlier in the season, plus a 5 game G-League assignment where he got plenty of run. Barring any injuries to a thin backcourt (hey Horst, how about Jeff Teague from the buyout market), I don’t think we’ll see much Merrill until seedings are set in stone, but I do think that his jumper makes him a credible Forbes understudy in short bursts, if needed.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B (Last week: B-)
I was a bit concerned to see him out there against Boston at first, but seeing him finish a sweet dump-off pass in the restricted area from his little bro was fun and made those 2 minutes worthwhile. Otherwise, he made some nice passes and had another dunk in the Indiana blowout, so I’m giving him some love here. His best contributions of the week were probably clowning with his brother on the bench on Monday, and if I were grading strictly on bench hype skills, Thanasis gets an A every time.
Mike Budenholzer: A (Last week: A)
As the Bucks continue to burnish the switching capabilities that everyone asked for, Bud introduced a new wrinkle into this defense that no one anticipated: zone. It came in handy against the Spurs and I saw them go to it here and there against the C’s. As Adam notes in the linked article, it seems well-suited to lineups featuring lesser defenders like Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes. How about the better defenders? P.J. Tucker has a well-earned reputation of being one of the league’s most switchable defenders, and I don’t know how much Houston ran a zone (if ever), but how would he look in such a scheme? What about Brook, when his zone is of the non-drop variety? Now is the time to experiment, and very early returns intrigue me for the postseason: I could see a zone being effective against Miami when they go small or Philly when Embiid sits, for instance. We’ve seen opposing defenses throw a zone at the Bucks in previous postseasons, but I’ve never found myself wanting Milwaukee to try it themselves. Moreover, this is another signal to me that 1) the Bucks continue to gain confidence and competence as switchers, 2) Bud is pleased with the way his team has adjusted throughout the year, and 3) Bud thinks they can do even more. Milwaukee’s defensive versatility is obvious this year compared to such one-dimensionality in seasons past: isn’t that what we all want to see come the playoffs?
Incomplete: Jordan Nwora (6 minutes), Mamadi Diakite (4 minutes), Axel Toupane (DNP... will he even play?), Rodions Kurucs (DNP... should he even play?)
The Bucks will head west next week on a less-imposing-than-usual road trip thanks to some injuries, so I’m looking forward to handing out some more As as this team continues to play up to snuff. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.