I don’t know about you, but I’ll gladly take a 2-1 week over three Western Conference playoff contenders without thinking twice, even if that single loss is as dispiriting as the Denver game. As we head into the All-Star break, here is how the Bucks will end their first halves, based on their performances since last Friday in matchups with the Clippers, Nuggets, and Grizzlies...
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: A)
Another huge week from The Greek Freak after rightfully earning East Player of the Week honors, who should again be in the conversation for said award after these three performances. He remained hyper-efficient despite missing a few more free throws than in recent weeks, notched huge rebound totals, and of course, swatted Milwaukee’s (the league’s?) block of the year. I want to highlight his passing above all the other gaudy stats, though. I’ve never really considered Giannis more than a decent passer: he’s had difficulty finding shooters in their pockets as he drove into walls in recent seasons, or just throwing plain bad passes easily picked off by the defense. But in both wins this week, he was finding guys early and often for great looks and 5.3 APG feels a bit low considering how crisp he was distributing the rock. He’s dealt with less help defense lately so he’s less likely to get flummoxed when passing out of double (as opposed to triple) teams. Giannis being less bogged down and having space to make good passes is big plus of Bud’s improved half-court offense.
Khris Middleton: A- (last week: A-)
Middleton is firmly back to his playmaking ways after they vanished during the recent 5-game skid, averaging 6 assists this week to go with just over 20 PPG. While a .419/.400/.826 shooting line might seem pedestrian—or even subpar—by his standards, the amount he got to the line was huge in two close victories. Khash shot 23 free throws on the week including a sterling 9/9 vs. Memphis, easily his most productive stretch at the charity stripe this year. He’s averaging about the same FT rate and volume per 36 as he has in recent years so perhaps this recent uptick won’t last, and I don’t expect him to ever get a good whistle, but drawing fouls has always been an area where Middleton could improve given how well he shoots. As a more frequent initiator this year, maybe we’ll start to see those attempts rise as the season progresses.
Jrue Holiday: B (last week: injured)
On a minutes restriction as he gets his conditioning back, Holiday wasn’t anything spectacular in his first two games back, but after being reinserted to finish off the Clippers game, he initiated one of the most beautiful Buck plays in recent memory, then drilled an ice-cold game-winner with 2 seconds left against the Grizzlies a few days later. I’ll admit, he looked so rusty on Sunday (understandably) that I didn’t think he should have closed out such a close game, but he clearly had something more in the tank. Moreover, while the way he cuts and sets the offense won’t show up in a box score, they are visibly critical to Milwaukee’s success. It was great to see him recapture some scoring mojo and fill up the stat sheet against Memphis. With a week off from game action, I think he’ll return to form very soon. Here’s hoping Holiday isn’t feeling significant lasting affects from his bout with COVID-19.
Brook Lopez: B- (last week: B)
Some are making a big deal about his fit on this team, but I don’t think such fuss is warranted. While his outside shot isn’t falling lately (4/15 this week) and his blocks are down as a whole this year, for every matchup like LA when he was rightfully lifted in the closing minutes, we see his value to this Bucks team in his work against certain opposing big men. Jonas Valanciunas has had some huge nights vs. Milwaukee going back to his time in Toronto, and Lopez was key in holding the Lithuanian center to an inefficient 13 points on 6/16 shooting. And he’s still providing enough as a scorer and rebounder—despite being outhustled by Patrick Beverley on the boards during a key stretch in Sunday’s 3rd quarter—to justify his 25–30 minutes a night. Perhaps Lopez is usually best left on the bench in clutch lineups against certain opponents as they go small, but I suspect he’ll prove his worth in matchups vs. East heavyweights Brooklyn and Philadelphia down the stretch and potentially in the postseason.
Donte DiVincenzo: C (last week: A-)
Wretched three-point shooting (2/12) and downright ugly effort at the rim (I counted 3 missed layups and of course, that missed dunk) really killed the good vibes from his previous week, when DDV played probably the best ball of his pro career. As I mentioned last week, no team allows a higher FG% within 3 feet than the Nuggets, but that was his worst night down low. All the botches cannot be good for his confidence, which I’d thought might be rising after some strong finishing efforts against some crappy defenses last week. His defense also was a mixed bag, looking largely powerless against Memphis’ backcourt of Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, who scored a combined 58. As is typical though, he still had some positive impacts: he was great on the boards (especially in the closing moments of the Clippers game), he sunk two clutch FTs against Memphis, and also found his teammates for some big assists in that fourth quarter. Such big swings in shooting performance game-to-game and week-to-week aren’t a huge deal for the Bucks as a whole, but they don’t make me optimistic about something more from a third-year player. We might have seen DiVincenzo’s ceiling as an NBA player in the last couple weeks.
Bobby Portis: B- (last week: B)
He wasn’t good against Denver (but no one was) racking up 4 fouls and 3 turnovers in only 17 minutes, and his scoring has taken a bit of a dive lately, but what concerned me most this week was the lack of volume from downtown: Portis totaled a mere 2 3PA over three games. For someone shooting over 50% from deep, that’s much too passive. He still managed to contribute in other ways at the rim and on the boards, so it wasn’t a bad week for the big man at all. It’s strange to not see him bombing away as much, though, for a guy who rarely meets a shot he doesn’t like.
D.J. Augustin: B+ (last week: B)
Not a flashy week, but an effective one for DJA, who seems to be gaining stability as a contributor while he remained in the starting lineup. He only took one shot inside the arc—a 13 footer against LA that missed—something I think we’d all prefer given how abysmal he’s been going to the rack this year, so his 5/12 mark from three looks all the better. While single game plus/minus is not to be read too deeply into, his team-high +17 against the Clippers made sense (he also was a team-high -4 vs. Denver) and on the week, Augustin led the team at +15 over three games. The eye test matched: things were going quite well in each win when he was on court. He hit two big threes the Clippers game: one extending a first half lead, and another late to cut the lead from 5 to 2 in answer to a Morris triple on the other end. He also dropped two dimes to Giannis and Khris which resulted in made threes. About all you can ask for from your backup, filling-in point man.
Pat Connaughton: B+ (last week: B)
Planet Pat did some serious work on the boards this week, notching 8 rebounds in 2 games and 9 in the other. His 10 PPG on .440/.400/1.000 shooting splits in 28 minutes a game are great too. That production off the bench was a big boost vs. Memphis as DiVincenzo struggled again. Connaughton picked up a big steal just under the two minute mark, but nothing was bigger than his late corner 3 to retake the lead they lost in the third on Thursday with under 40 seconds left. He was on the floor at the buzzer in each W in a small lineup with Giannis, Middleton, DiVincenzo, and Holiday. Bud went to this closing lineup twice and perhaps he’s onto something: with its 78.4 defensive rating and +41.1 net rating (albeit only in 16 minutes this year), we may see Connaughton finishing games more often.
Bryn Forbes: C- (last week: B+)
The biggest minute casualty of Jrue’s return seems to be those of Forbes, as his PT essentially cut in half beginning Sunday, but maybe that’s a good thing given some recent struggles. Outside of a decent shooting night in a loss to Denver, this was a forgettable week for the Bucks’ gunner, capped off with a big donut on Thursday vs. Memphis: 0/3, 0 points, 0 boards, 0 assists, a.k.a. the Tony Snell special. Forbes really only has value to this team when he’s taking and making threes at a high rate, and in the absence of that he’s mostly invisible on offense. If only he were more invisible on the other end: his suspect D tanks his value when he’s not scoring, reflected in his team-low (by quite a bit, in fact) -39 this week over 41 minutes. Hopefully the break can stop his shooting slump: he’s just 4 for his last 16 from deep.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B (last week: B)
Not much to report from Thanasty outside of the Memphis game, blocking a guy several inches taller than him, a nice tip-in, and a buzzer-beating dunk off a steal. He’s still the sparkplug the team needs him to be for 5ish minutes a game and that’s a perfectly fine role for him. I can only imagine how jacked up a full home arena would have gotten seeing him cap off a fine first quarter in that fashion, but even without a crowd boost the team clearly feeds of his tenacity. The Bucks often have difficulty closing quarters—particularly the third—and I wonder if had he been inserted in the closing minutes of the third last night (instead of for the last 1.8 seconds), Memphis wouldn’t have tied things up.
Torry Craig: D (last week: INC)
Hoping to reprise his season-best effort against his former employer a few weeks ago, Bud trotted Craig out for a rare sub in the Nuggets game. He apparently left that magic in Denver though, as his 11 minutes finished with very little to show and a team-low -21. Craig’s defensive reputation preceded him as he joined the Bucks, but I’ve seen little to none of the on-ball defender who often stifled elite Western Conference wings in recent seasons, especially in the playoffs. It’s too bad, but maybe he was just a system guy? I’m not sure, but at this point I think he’s not more than a salary-matching piece in a potential trade, and I’ll be surprised if we see much more of him in the second half—if he even remains in Milwaukee.
Mike Budenholzer: A- (last week: B)
I’m attributing Tuesday’s loss to Denver on drab player effort and Nikola Jokic’s wizardry, less so on coaching. So let’s focus on the two wins. Bud’s ATO playcall on an inbounds with 24.2 remaining, clinging to a 1 point lead against a top-tier Western Conference opponent is one of his finest moments since arriving in Milwaukee: 4 Bucks touched the ball, the LA defense was put in the blender early, and two guys made the extra pass leading to an emphatic dagger dunk that Marcus Morris could only watch. The lightning-quick passes the Bucks threw eliminated the possibility that LA could help, or even foul Giannis as he soared to victory. Late game execution had always been a Bucks Achilles heel prior to 2020, probably because they rarely found themselves in close games late, but the team has made huge strides there lately and players’ confidences in closing minutes seems visibly higher as a result. Against both LA and Memphis the Bucks found themselves on the wrong end of a two-possession game in the closing 5 minutes, and both times the Bucks snatched away the lead within the last couple minutes on their way to Ws. Credit to Bud for calling the right plays when up against the clock.
I also want to add that Bud seems to have figured something out in regards to 3 point defense. Milwaukee has now held their opponent below their 3P% average in 8 consecutive games, so the 28 additional 3PA opponents have over that same span aren’t as big a deal, and neither is the Bucks’ recent cold streak shooting themselves: their 3P% on the year dropped 0.8% this week (still good for 4th in the league) after averaging 9% less 3PM each night.
Incomplete: Sam Merrill (5 minutes), D.J. Wilson (DNP), Jordan Nwora (injured)
The Bucks conclude the first half with a 22-14 record and are just 2 games back of the East’s top seed. Even with periods of frustration, this team is in a good spot and a B+ seems like a fitting way to describe that, while acknowledging the room they have to improve. Programming note: this column will be off next week as the Bucks won’t return to action until Thursday night, March 11. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.