A 1-3 week means fewer As, but in spite of two deflating losses to contenders, there are still some plaudits to be handed out, especially to the young guys pressed into action. They moved out of the incomplete category as the Bucks were shorthanded against New York, but saw run with the usual second unit too. We’ll start with the homecoming king...
Jrue Holiday: A (Last week: A)
Any way you slice it, Holiday has been the most important Buck since Giannis missed the Indiana game last Monday. He’s shot a sizzling 47.3% from deep on 6.3 attempts per game as he nears a career-high 3P% on healthy volume. He stuffed the stat sheet averaging 23 points on 63% shooting, 5 boards, 5.7 dimes, and 2.7 steals, looking every bit like a master-of-all-trades when the Bucks needed someone to seize the reigns from a hobbled Giannis. I saw shades of the 2018 playoff Holiday that outplayed Damian Lillard in a series sweep, and man oh man does that have me excited to see him in June. He seems to love playing in Staples Center, which is great because it appears Khris Middleton doesn’t. If he has a chance to do play there in an NBA Finals...
Giannis Antetokounmpo: B+ (Last week: A-)
The Freak clearly didn’t look right in the Boston matchup, eschewing his usual aggressiveness to the rim by deferring elsewhere. Those efforts also showed up on the glass upon arriving in LA, getting caught ball-watching one too many times after missed Clipper shots, resulting in easy offensive boards for the opposition. He appeared physically healthier once he took the Staples Center floor, putting things together in the Lakers matchup, though his 9 turnovers were a slight issue. I was also glad to see Giannis shake off a rougher night at the line on Friday (3/6) and hit 18 of his next 22 across the LA games, and even more glad to see him defending the rim as he did in 2019–20 against the Lakers.
Khris Middleton: B+ (Last week: A)
Middleton faced tight, playoff-caliber defense each night this week as opponents looked to shut him down early in games, and they largely succeeded. But he hitched a ride on the tough shot express during Wednesday’s second quarter to break free of a rough start, even if his performance in other quarters that night (and on Monday) left a lot to be desired from an efficiency standpoint. It seems important for Khash to achieve confidence in his jumper early, because first quarter midrange Js typically bode well for his output, and tend to compound on each other. You can tell that opposing defenses seek to contain him out of the gates; that level of attention from contending teams is flattering, at least.
Brook Lopez: B- (Last week: A)
Including being the de facto best player on either team against New York, Lopez’s performances were very up and down. Stat lines in LA paint the opposite picture of what really happened: despite better box score numbers against the Clippers, he was a downright liability at times in that matchup, and vice versa against the Lakers. Though his production was muted in that one, he flashed the All-Defense profile of a year ago to go along with four blocks. One interesting development in his shot selection: only 4 of his last 18 shots have been from deep as he attacks with aplomb off the dribble and in the paint.
Donte DiVincenzo: B (Last week: A-)
DiVincenzo’s efficiency took a swan dive against the Celtics and Clippers, and he was downright bad against the latter. Thankfully, some bullseye catch-and-shoot treys against the Lakers staked the Bucks to commanding leads in the middle sections of that contest. On the defensive end, no one seemed more susceptible to being burned for overhelping than DDV against the Clippers and in the first quarter of the Lakers game. That seems not to track with his reputation: you’d think he’d be best suited as a help defender with his ball-hawking abilities and that he often has trouble keeping opponents in front of him (particularly in that Clippers duel). In these instances, his instincts may be telling him to do a bit too much when he helps. DiVincenzo doing too much? That never happens...
Pat Connaughton: B (Last week: A)
Connaughton’s rebounding prowess in the Celtics loss made up for a lackluster shooting night, but his success on the boards can’t always make up for quieter showings from deep. 6/15 is fine across a few games, but with how prolific he’s been lately, I now expect better from him. He’s finally filling his idealized role: a bench marksman who can swing outcomes in early second/fourth-quarter minutes. When he combines that with strong drives to the rim and rebounding, he becomes a critical part of this Bucks team each evening, instead of a Korver replica. The more he shoots threes, the less the other stuff matters, but if he’s not offering anything else on an off-shooting night, he’s no different than...
Bryn Forbes: B (Last week: B+)
When his midrange game completely escapes him as it did this past week, Forbes can be frustrating if he’s not heading out to the arc for kick-outs, and he seems to understand this more and more each week. To his credit, he was actually a willing passer on nights when his shot wasn’t much of a weapon. On the other hand, passing seems like his last resort. This isn’t a problem when he’s torching teams from deep, but if his shooting impact is negligible, it can be detrimental. If he’s not making multiple triples a night this postseason, I imagine he’ll quickly see his minutes cut, but I think he’s too good of a shooter for that to happen.
Jordan Nwora: B+ (Last week: INC)
Garbage time minutes aside, it was gratifying to see against the Knicks that Nwora appears to be an actual NBA player. That’s about all you can ask for from any player drafted after 40 or so. Nwora’s first career double-double came on mediocre shooting inside the arc, but all rookies (and Donte) need some time to adjust to NBA interior defenses. His jumper, though accurate, is a little too close to a chest pass with that low, college-style release. I don’t know that he’s a rotation player yet, but he’s an NBA player, and the Bucks have given roster spots in recent years to guys who just... aren’t.
Sam Merrill: A- (Last week: B)
Merrill may have been the second-best Buck as he spelled Forbes against Boston, hitting a cool 6/8 and establishing a new career-high of 15 points, at times appearing to be the only Buck capable of hitting a shot. His results in the abnormal, starter-less New York contest weren’t nearly as pretty, but it’s satisfying to see second-rounders look highly competent in minutes against actual NBA rotation players. As the team returns to health and fills its last roster spots with vets, we may have seen the last of such performances for a while.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: A (Last week: B)
This is by far the most productive stretch of Thanasis’ career, highlighted by this gaudy line against the Knicks: 23 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 8/15 from the floor, and 4/5 from deep. He was entrusted as essentially the primary offensive option and ballhandler in that bizarre game, running the point that evening and with other bench units throughout the week. While the three-point shooting is likely a fluke and he fails to convert a bit too often down low (usually fed by his little brother), these offensive contributions were really valuable in close games this week. We’ll see Thanasis as long as P.J. Tucker is out, but if he even notches half this level of play, he’s a quality fill-in. Everything I just wrote about Thanasis would have been completely unthinkable weeks ago, let alone last year.
Mamadi Diakite: B (Last week: INC)
Called into action to spell Bobby Portis, the G-League ace was solid enough in limited minutes with Portis’ typical bench lineups. Like Thanasis and Nwora, he made the most of his extended run against New York with some solid two-way play. I don’t know how much more he’s capable of at the NBA level and the Bucks can’t necessarily afford to find out during the remainder of this season, but there’s enough there to suggest he could someday be a solid role player. A standard contract is in order this offseason—albeit one with the typical team options common to multiyear deals given to unproven young players.
Axel Toupane: D (Last week: INC)
The Bucks’ other two-way player got a surprise start against New York, ostensibly for some defense-oriented minutes. He managed to accrue a bucket, a couple of boards, an assist, and a block, but it was painfully obvious how over-matched he was, especially when he had the ball. Toupane seems to have no aggressiveness or playmaking ability on offense and while he didn’t get many touches, the ones he had were hard to watch. I don’t understand why the Bucks chose him for their open two-way slot; I imagine there are dozens of younger, more dynamic, and more deserving players who should have that opportunity. Hopefully, we are not “treated” to further Axel Toupane experiences from here on out.
Mike Budenholzer: B (Last week: A)
Bud continues varying his defensive playcalling night-to-night; the new zone looks were roundly smoked by a floater-happy Clippers team but were pretty effective against New York, even from younger, athletic, and more switchable lineups featuring Diakite. His lineup choices were pretty good given the state of the roster, and seemed particularly beneficial for Diakite, Merrill, Nwora, and Thanasis: he put those guys in a position to succeed each night. His most effective coaching maneuvers seemed to have been against the Lakers; while the coach interviews between quarters don’t give much to read into, Bud told ESPN after the Lakers shot 8/13 in the first on Wednesday night how important it was that they protect the arc better. The Lakers were simply on fire, draining well-contested triples more than they were taking advantage of defensive lapses. The rest of the way, they went 2/24. While I didn’t see a sweeping schematic adjustment, I definitely did not see any overhelping or getting caught in the spin cycle on ball swings. Bud’s defense isn’t one that advocates excessive switching or collapsing toward the rim like Jason Kidd’s was, but players often do overhelp instinctively. Bud may be trying to break those habits because when the team isn’t baited by drives from opposing ballhandlers and rollers, the Bucks’ defense looks elite.
Incomplete: Bobby Portis (health and safety protocols), P.J. Tucker (calf injury), Rodions Kurucs (oblique injury)
The next four West coast tilts vary in opponent quality, but the understudies picking up the slack from Tucker and Portis have to keep things up against some deeper benches. Though 4-2 is within grasp, if the Bucks manage to go 3-3 on this trip they’ll get my stamp of approval. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.