For many years, one of the great pleasures (maybe the only pleasure...) of watching the Milwaukee Bucks was tracking the young players. That early in any player’s career, a single bucket can feel like being dropped in a dunk tank of hope. Eventually, the goal is for one of them to blossom. Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken that developmental curve to the extreme, and in the course of half a decade, Milwaukee’s roster is routinely on the elder side of the league now. The spare minutes for those young pieces grow slim. And yet, that can make you appreciate those minutes that much more.
In a regular season that’s grown to feel more and more meaningless compared to postseason success, seeing the Jordan Nwora’s of the world execute a reverse layup can reignite those long-doused flames of excitement. If you’ve pined for the Bucks of yesteryear, this was your Cream City upon a Hill. If, like me, you’d prefer to keep seeing how the elder statesmen gel, well, this was a good week to see just how much dinner prep you could get done during dead balls. Let’s wrap-up.
The Week That Was
- Milwaukee 101, Dallas 116 (Missing Shots, Missing Home)
- Milwaukee 119, Charlotte 127 (Bucks Outdone by Hornets)
- Milwaukee 124, Orlando 87 (Bucks Blow Past Magic)
A weird week that started off with a disappointing loss in Dallas, even if Giannis sat it out. The Mavericks two stars, Doncic and Porzingis, combined for 53 points. Milwaukee’s, in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, had 27. Middleton had perhaps the worst shooting night of his career at 6-27. It was a wasted effort in the fourth after a bench crew limped them back ahead to close the third. Charlotte was another gimme game. I get it’s frustrating when Bud sits the starters, but they’re also all pulling a bit more weight with Giannis out, and that game seemed like a worthwhile gamble to see if the young guns could pull it out. Not the most fun to watch though, although it seemed like Playoff basketball in comparison to the bloodbath that was the Magic evisceration. I can’t say I remember almost anything notable from the Orlando game. Middleton shot well, the bench showed out and Bryn Forbes flashed a little something extra. A win’s a win, and they needed a win whatever way they could get it.
This sequence is fun because we get to highlight the mop-up squad that started the Charlotte game. And more importantly, we get to see a side of Jordan Nwora outside of the shotfest that is his game right now. Flash back to the peppy players hopping about for their second start of the season, and we see a set designed to get the veteran, Bobby Portis, a bucket to preface what should’ve been a Bobby Buckets staredown.
Let’s get this out of the way. I’d been waiting for the debut of Bally Sport’s version of the “Sargento” graphic. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had deluded my mind into thinking maybe one of their graphic department dudes had seen my persistent pleas and chosen to downsize it, or at least flatten it to something small that just peeks above the scoreboard bug, And then that behemoth you see above appeared. Incredibly, it is MORE obtrusive and MORE frustrating than what FSW used. And so friends, bear with me, as we now essentially miss the entire backcourt thanks to Sargento, a fine purveyor of cheeses, and (always remember) a generous company helping Habitat for Humanity. I kid because I love.
ANYWAY, whoo boy how about that setup above. I love how we get something a little bit different, with nobody lumbering to the corners to start. Instead, we get a big jumbled mess of players in the paint, like a schoolyard donnybrook is about to break out. Bryn Forbes kicks everything off by trotting across the paint to set a screen to free Nwora for a screaming sprint to the ball-side corner.
Immediately after that, Forbes takes on his typical role by flashing above the break for a potential pass from Teague. As he trots around the screens of Thanasis and Portis, his gravity keeps the Hornet defenders’ eyes on him for a quick trigger. But Teague has already dished it to Nwora who, instead of eyeing up an isolation scoring opportunity or a pull-up, spots Portis dashing to the rim after P.J. Washington hops around a screen in an attempt to disrupt a potential Forbes triple.
It’s solid recognition by Portis, and Nwora knew where he was going the whole time. Unfortunately, Jalen McDaniels made it over for a solid contest at the rim in time (Portis maybe could’ve wrapped a pass to Thanasis), but I still love seeing something crisp that showed off a different skill from Nwora’s typical toolbox.
On the StruggleBucks
There are a few team-wide pieces that we could highlight in this section, unfortunately. The defensive rebounding took a clear step back last week, as both the Warriors and Mavericks were able to capitalize upon missed opportunities. But, all in all, they’re still looking solid on that end given they’re ranked sixth in the league in defensive rebounding rate. Instead, there was one bugaboo that’s worth highlighting as we haven’t looked at Milwaukee’s clutch performance much outside the context of their rough record in games they trail after three quarters.
First, the Milwaukee Bucks have already played as many clutch minutes this year, 74 minutes, in 53 games as they did last year in 72. But, 74 minutes is still a pretty paltry amount compared to the rest of the league, fifth fewest in fact. One of the issues with “clutch” definitions (game within five points in the final five minutes) is that it can arbitrarily count out some games that we might think of as “close.” And so, while I would say all in all, this Milwaukee Bucks team has played far more close games than last year, they aren’t playing all that many more clutch minutes than last season’s historically low total.
The Bucks rank fairly well overall in the clutch. They’re eighth in terms of net rating (7.6), just behind the Brooklyn Nets, and while their offense is predictably worse than their regular season figure, their defense has stiffened up against opponents to the tune of a 103 rating. It’s not due to some outlier opponent shooting either. Opponents are hitting about 34% of their 3-pointers, which is a few points below the Bucks 37.4% season-long mark for foes. They are allowing the most 3-pointers per game in clutch time though, 3.7, but that can swing wildly given the small sample size. So all in all, the stats say they’ve been all right, but there’s still such limited data it’s tough to take any sweeping generalizations away. So, let’s look a little deeper into player data. Here’s a breakdown of usage and other what percentage of the team’s different stats they’ve accounted for in the clutch while on the floor.
% of Team’s Clutch Stats
Before we excoriate Khris Middleton, because, well, oof he’s had a tough time late in games this year, just remember that he’s assuredly taking the toughest shots out of this crew. He’s taking the most threes by far, and his shot chart is wildly out of whack with his normal shot chart. See below for a comparison of clutch (left) vs. the entire season (right)
I do think he’s saddled with really difficult shots late as the “default” option a lot of times, and that was exacerbated on teams in the past with Bledsoe aboard, but there is now a decent trend of Middleton not shooting nearly as well in the clutch.
The sample sizes are important though. The one year he’s had a decent shooting performance in clutch situations, he had twice as many field goal attempts, giving him time to work through whatever shooting slump he might’ve been in. This season, his struggles have been amplified of late. He’s made just three of his last 15 shots in clutch situations. Turnovers have been an incredible issue for him this season too. His 10 cough-ups dwarf the next highest turnovers in clutch situations, Giannis and Donte at three. All in all, I still find myself generally trusting Khris late, but I would be curious if some usage got distributed a bit more to Giannis or Holiday.
Giannis comes out of this looking like the player who deserves more possessions late. His usage is below Middleton’s and yet he’s scored more points, shot more efficiently and actually had a higher percentage of the team’s clutch assists. That last stat surprised me given the pub Khris has gotten as a growing playmaker late in games. Still, four of Middleton’s six clutch assists have gone to Giannis. Here’s the best of those:
The Greek Freak has sprinkled in his usual punishing drives late, but he’s found success as a roller or purposefully working smaller mismatches down low. Those are the benefits of the smallball lineup late, when teams prefer to switch everything and Giannis can use his mobility to exploit smaller teams without sacrificing defensive versatility on the other end.
Interestingly though, Giannis actually has a higher percentage of unassisted baskets in clutch situations than during non-clutch play. That tracks given the general isolation-heavy style of late game situations, but it does show he’s been able to find success even scoring on his own. Perhaps he is a big who should have the ball more in his hands late, although that didn’t lead to overwhelmingly wild success individually when they did it last year. There are two other things I want to highlight from Giannis late, especially in comparison to last year. Let’s put those stats side-by-side. Look at the difference in personal fouls, and the uptick in assists already. Despite the ball clearly being in his hands more last year, he’s already lodged more assists in clutch spots this season.
And, of course, we need to touch at least a little on Jrue Holiday. He hasn’t asserted himself all that much during clutch time, but he’s definitely felt more aggressive of late. Still, his 23.3 usage rate is higher than any non-GIannis/Khris player last year. Brook Lopez was actually third highest at 19.8, with Bledsoe at 18.8. What stands out is how much stability Holiday has brought to these closing lineups though. Bledsoe only played 35 clutch minutes last season, and Bud basically went eight players deep. This year, he’s got it down to six.
But what about the other pieces? One of the core ideas of this season is determining an ideal closing five, and Bud has coalesced around six players right now, with Pat Connaughton and Brook Lopez as the swing men. Stay big with Brook or downsize with Pat. The prevailing theory is that PJ Tucker can take the Pat role, although I’ll be curious if the offense would take any sort of downturn in that situation. Presumably not, as all they’re asking Pat to do is shoot threes and Tucker should be able to do that serviceably. Donte has been fairly invisible in the usage category, which is probably for the best. He’ll clearly be the fourth wheel in this lineup, and for better or worse, Milwaukee will need to rely on him come Playoff time.
Well, for the first time ever in these rankings, we won’t have the actual MVP as a candidate. Giannis missed every game for this iteration of the wrap-up, and we’re left to choose someone as his replacement. Unfortunately, even the Bucks stars weren’t twinkling in their two games they played. This is the first time where other could win, and I’d completely understand. For that reason, I’m going to broaden the voting. We must remember, for the week 14 MVP voting will have an asterisk attached as perhaps the weakest weekly MVP of the season. So, who ya got?
Khris Middleton (2 GP: 17.5 pts, 8.0 reb, 4.0 ast, 1.0 stl)
Khash tonight against the Magic:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 12, 2021
21 PTS | 8 REB | 5 AST | 8/13 FG pic.twitter.com/zM40Dt9hMn
Jrue Holiday (2 GP: 12.5 pts, 5.0 reb, 5.0 ast, 1.0 blk)
Bobby Portis (3 GP: 15.3 pts, 12.3 reb, 1.3 ast, 0.7 stl, 0.7 blk)
Bobby Buckets with another double-double:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 12, 2021
16 PTS | 10 REB | 4/6 3PT pic.twitter.com/EmKyFC9DD4
Jordan Nwora (2 GP: 17.5 pts, 4.5 reb, 1.5 ast, 1.0 stl, 1.0 blk)
The Rook dropped a new career-high in points last night:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 10, 2021
24 PTS | 6 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL pic.twitter.com/xBVEwB23aH
Donte DiVincenzo (2 GP: 15.5 pts, 6.5 reb, 3.0 ast, 1.5 stl)
Donte against Dallas:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 9, 2021
22 PTS | 6 REB | 2 AST | 2 STL pic.twitter.com/sKWXkBQZ5O
Week 15: The Bucks MVP was...
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This poll will close at noon on Thursday, April 15.
As always, thanks for reading, especially during down weeks like this.