How much does a wire-to-wire victory over the East’s number 1 seed make up for two dispiriting losses at home? While a W in one of those games would have put the Bucks just a game and a half from that top spot, they’re still solidly in the hunt at 2.5 back. Brooklyn’s health changes nightly and Philly’s is on thin ice as Joel Embiid recklessly plays through injuries in a vain attempt to get back in the MVP race. He also wants to hold onto that top seed very much, but now the Bucks hold the tiebreaker over them. There’s still a very real possibility Milwaukee gets the top seed: three weeks remain to tie the Sixers and surpass the banged-up Nets in the standings. Plenty of time, and a team can realistically accomplish this in just one week, with some help.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: B+)
Firmly back in the lineup and thankfully only dealing with cramps in OT on Monday, The Freak averaged 29.3/11.6/5.3 on great efficiency this week. Yes, the ISO slip with a chance to beat Phoenix was bad, but he shouldn’t have been tasked with that. The guttiest stuff to me happened Thursday when he shook off a 3/8 start at the line to make 7 of his next 10. His passing also wowed me in that one: Giannis was driving deep into Philly’s defense, swarmed by a wall of Sixers, but flung pinpoint passes out to the perimeter (one was even backwards!). The best was when he found a squared-up, open Portis in the corner for 3.
Jrue Holiday: A- (last week: A-)
His three-ball wasn’t falling against Philly (though he had 11 assists) and he verged a bit much on hero-ball as regulation winded down in the Phoenix game, but there’s no other criticism to be directed towards Holiday this week. Switching between Chris Paul and Devin Booker, he kept the elite Suns' backcourt pretty honest after shutting down Ja Morant (13 points on 16 shots). Opposing guards just don’t scare me anymore.
Khris Middleton: A- (last week: B)
Middleton’s effort on Thursday in a key standings matchup was one of his best in a some time: 24 on 10/16 shooting and 4/7 from distance. He had 21 in the first half so his second half was muted (1/5), but the damage he did early made the difference in that win. While he struggled mightily behind the arc for much of the Suns game, he hit a crucial one late and ended up respectfully efficient on his 26. His playmaking has ticked back up in recent weeks: 10 dimes made up for a 5/13 shooting performance (2/7 on twos) on Saturday.
Brook Lopez: A- (last week: A)
Phoenix may have played Lopez off the floor (and Bud lifted him a bit too late in the closing minutes) but after shooting 47.4% this week from deep, he’s now at 35.5% on the year, not far off his first year in hunter green. When he’s squared up to the basket and has his feet set he’s far more effective: he’s shooting 46.4% on 5.6 catch-and-shoot 3PA over the last 5 games. Lopez frustrated Joel Embiid all night on Thursday (9/21 shooting) forcing a slow start as the Bucks offense rolled, and was largely responsible for keeping him 6 points below his season average. For all those decrying him earlier this year and questioning his fit on the team, please watch the Sixers’ game again.
Donte DiVincenzo: C (last week: C+)
Have you seen this man? DiVincenzo’s toe may be bothering him more than we can see, and while he’s been serviceable on defense, the scoring vanished after a stellar night in Dallas two weeks ago. Since going 6/10 that evening, he’s 4 of his last 19 from three and is averaging just 7 points on merely 34% shooting. He also uncharacteristically has just one steal during that stretch.
Bobby Portis: A- (last week: A-)
Not sure if anyone is still saying this, but the narrative that Portis doesn’t get up for the big games should be permanently retired after torching the Sixers for 23 on 9/11 shooting, perfect on his 5 3PA. Memphis and Phoenix were bad matchups for him given their frontcourt personnel, and Bud adjusted his minutes (just 9 and 14 respectively) accordingly. He was freed of dealing with Philly’s interior attack by Lopez and Giannis, and the Bucks reaped the benefits on offense as Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Dwight Howard had no chance to close out on him at the line after they were drawn toward the rim.
P.J. Tucker: A- (last week: B+)
As will happen with Tucker, no real box score numbers to mention this week, but in his first 20+ minute appearances as a Buck was a godsend defensively, saving certain bench lineups from being totally wrecked. We finally saw the closing 4-man grouping many (or at least me) want of Giannis/Tucker/Middleton/Holiday late in the Phoenix matchup and though it was just 1:18, it looked quite effective and worth playing more in future clutch minutes.
Jeff Teague: B (last week: A-)
A quiet week with reduced minutes, capped off by a healthy scratch on Thursday, is just fine for the veteran Teague. They clearly didn’t need him against a Simmons-less Philly team lacking any notable guard play, though I wish he could have helped the bench contain Phoenix’s sparkplug off the bench... *checks notes* Cameron Payne?
Pat Connaughton: B+ (last week: B+)
Back above 39% from deep on the season, Connaughton shook off a rough shooting night Saturday and provided his typical output of treys while racking up an impressive amount of boards. He even did some work in the dunker’s spot last night! While his role on this team is to hit threes, he’s such a great cutter who finishes so well around the rim that I’d like to see Milwaukee run more of those plays while he’s in, just to flummox opposing defenses who think he’s just going to camp out behind the line.
Bryn Forbes: B+ (last week: A)
Forbes was effective in a spot start facing the Grizzlies going for 19 on 7/13 shooting, though surprisingly, most of those makes were inside as he hit 4/4 between 8 and 17 feet. That jumper works from anywhere, and while you prefer to see it from the outside, uncontested mid-rangers will always be there in the postseason. He’ll likely hit several of them come playoffs which will sustain some bench-heavy lineups.
Mike Budenholzer: B- (last week: B)
Firstly, Bud smartly eschewed his ineffective zone defense against Philly after it was shredded in prior matchups (particularly by Memphis). Coming into the Suns game, the Bucks zone ranked 23rd in the NBA giving up 1.053 points per possession. Late-game execution has been a major theme of recent Bucks games, with another chance to win at the buzzer wasted on Monday night, yet again after the team couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead. As I’ve said before, isolation is not Milwaukee’s strength. While you certainly want Giannis to become more competent in such situations and he should have that chance, it’s too much of a work-in-progress at this point to let Giannis try and win it at the horn. In each Phoenix game this year, Giannis ran off a lot of clock dribbling only to literally fall flat on his face or brick a low percentage look, to the Suns’ delight. When the Bucks have an inbound play and need a shot in 2 or 3 seconds, as they also had on Monday, they haven’t gotten good looks. While it’s common to run ISOs with the shot clock off, it’s incumbent on Bud to change these sets and play calls late in games because the personnel he has isn’t well suited for it. As Adam suggested, running more creative late-game sets could be fruitful, and we’ve already seen this team succeed in such situations when they move the ball.
Incomplete: Thanasis Antetokounmpo (5 minutes), Jordan Nwora (2), Sam Merrill (2), Mamadi Diakite (1), Rodions Kurucs (1), Axel Toupane (DNP)
Whether or not the Sixers risk the health of their top two players for a win tomorrow, the Bucks are realized to the point that they are capable of taking down any opponent. This iteration of the team, better than the group they began the season with, has been fully healthy the last two games now that Giannis and DiVincenzo are playing. That will help as they hit the road again swinging through Atlanta (weren’t they just there?) and Charlotte (can they finally beat the Hornets this year?), looking to pick up more games in the standings while the Nets have to deal with a Suns team looking to make it a 3-0 road trip versus the East’s elite. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.