4-0 this week, if by the skin of the Bucks’ teeth! A win tonight over Houston will move Milwaukee into the 2 seed by virtue of their freshly-gained tiebreaker over Brooklyn. Even going back to early April, some pundits (myself included) were resigned to the 3 seed. So if this unprecedented, injury-filled, travel-heavy practice-avoidant, jam-packed season has taught us anything, it’s that predicting basically any outcome in said season is foolish.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: A)
After one of the best jump-shooting performances of his career on Sunday, Giannis fell a little bit too in love with his J on Tuesday night: though he finished with 36 points on 30 shots, only 3 of his final 17 shots went in. That inefficiency aside, he stormed back into the lineup by outdueling Kevin Durant on Sunday. On the week he shot 23/26 at the line and a solid 36% on his triples on 7.3 per. He flashed three-level scoring ability in the first Brooklyn tilt and while he couldn’t replicate that in the next two, it’s not as if he was ineffective; he just went back to punishing opponents inside.
Jrue Holiday: A- (last week: B+)
Tasked with guarding elite backcourt players in three consecutive contests, plus having to switch up onto KD, I don’t think any NBA player could have defended Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and a bit of Bradley Beal better than Holiday did. He even matched Westbrook in the scoring department while having to check him on the other end: no small feat! It felt like many of his 8 threes (on 14 attempts) on Tuesday and Wednesday were critical in sustaining leads.
Khris Middleton: A (last week: B)
I don’t care that he had 22 on 24 shots against the Bulls or that he missed the Wizards game, because Middleton was every bit the number two scorer the Bucks needed against the Nets. After dropping 26 on Sunday, he was key in sparking an 18-1 run that put Milwaukee back in front. His entire fourth was massive, and he was just 3/12 entering that final quarter! He didn’t miss from then on, and surprisingly only one of those makes was a three. Following Giannis’ lead, he knifed through the Brooklyn interior butter stick and also feasted from the dunker’s spot.
Brook Lopez: B+ (last week: B)
Though he didn’t post banner offensive nights against his old team and hit the bench as the Nets went small, Lopez swatted away 12 shots this week, reminding everyone that he was an All-Defensive honoree last year. His scoring output is down in line with some reduced minutes and the three is disappearing somewhat from his offensive game, but regardless, Lopez remains rarely ineffective in whatever playing time he receives.
Donte DiVincenzo: B (last week: C+)
Another goose egg this week after sitting out last Friday, but DiVincenzo rebounded (quite literally) from Tuesday onward. Now, even if you’re the fifth starter, a game where you’re 0-for-everything is bad and 8 rebounds don’t excuse that. We’re looking at the aggregate, though, and a 6’4” perimeter player led the team in boards during the Brooklyn series. As he found his shot again going 5/10 on Tuesday, he pulled down 15 off the glass, including 6 of the offensive variety. As a result, Milwaukee had a 20-9 edge in second-chance points. His shot came all the way back on Wednesday as he kept the Bucks in it early, burying 5 of 7 behind the arc and scoring 19 in just 20 minutes, before he became one of too many Bucks who fouled out.
Bobby Portis: B (last week: B)
I’m not sure what the Bulls slipped in Portis’ water bottle after he torched his old team for 16 and 14 on Friday, but it wasn’t enough to upset his stomach for more than a day. So bush league (kidding of course). Given his defense, Brooklyn and Washington weren’t great matchups so he saw only 16 minutes in each. His appetite might not be all the way back yet anyway, though I’m sure it will be against some mediocre-to-awful opponents in the week ahead.
P.J. Tucker: B+ (last week: A-)
It’s always kind of funny to look at how many points Tucker actually scores and how it doesn't matter at all: this week it was 8 over four games! You can never go off traditional box score numbers for this guy. Seeing him switch onto Kyrie and hold his own was promising, as was his continued competence on Durant. In the likely event that Milwaukee gets a playoff date with Brooklyn, Tucker’s 20-some minutes could be a sneaky difference between a win and a loss, as it was in their admirable defensive effort on Sunday.
Bryn Forbes: A (last week: A-)
The only weapon off the bench against Brooklyn, Forbes shot 11/21 from deep this week and continues having success in the midrange (7/9). As always, one hopes his volume is higher outside the three-point line than inside it (this week it was), but I personally don’t mind him stepping in after a defender flies by him on a shot fake. His 20 footer is very reliable, even if it’s not the most desirable, and it’s a welcome additional way the Bucks can create a shot. Though he got a lot of run with the starters, his defense isn’t good enough for a bigger role than what he has now.
Pat Connaughton: B+ (last week: C)
That three-ball is back, and none were bigger than Connaughton’s two makes between the 1:30 and 1-minute marks versus Washington. Even bigger, though, was blocking Daniel Gafford’s putback attempt clinging to a 2 point lead with 31 seconds left. 16 points, 6 boards, 3 assists, 1 game-saver. With that, let’s absolve him of invisible performances in the previous two.
Jeff Teague: B (last week: C)
Also largely absent against the Nets was Teague, though a strained ab is largely to blame. At least bookended the week with two very solid, double-digit outings. I do see him passing up a few too many open threes and while he’s never been an elite long-range shooter, I’d like to see him let it fly (remember when that was novel?) more often. He shot 46.4% (if on low volume in Boston), after all. I’m mildly surprised that Bud hasn’t snuffed out his old point guard’s reluctance yet.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: B (last week: B)
Thanasis got some possessions on Westbrook and actually came out ahead, so it’s kind of a bummer he didn’t even get one shot at Durant. Would it have really hurt to let him close out a first or third and see if he could bug the star enough into missing just one jumper? It’s not like elite defenders can really stop KD; he’s an all-time shooter. That entertainment factor is big with Thanasis, though I don’t really want to see such things in a playoff series.
Mike Budenholzer: B+ (last week: C)
A typical reason the Bucks struggle on defense is overhelping. Though obviously good defenders in their own right, Giannis and DiVincenzo are the biggest culprits. Take an early fourth-quarter possession on Tuesday, where Giannis instinctively but unwisely helped onto Mike James—who was playing in Russia until two weeks ago—futilely drove towards Lopez, dished to a wide-open Jeff Green that Giannis had abandoned, who buried the trey to go up 97-92. Thankfully the Bucks’ 18-1 run followed, but I highlight this play for one reason: it’s one of the few times the Bucks overhelped in the Brooklyn series. I’m inclined to give Bud part of the credit here because his defensive game plan against the Nets was very good, and if he’s indeed drilling the importance of trusting teammates on defense, it took hold with the guys who needed to hear it most.
An aside from the Wizards’ game: this is probably more optics than outcome, but using his challenge on a late foul called on Jeff Teague was a dubious choice. Naturally, Giannis got whistled for his sixth not two minutes later on a charge that likely wouldn’t have been overturned (Westbrook sold it very well), but that’s the time to hit the green button. With Middleton resting and DiVincenzo already fouled out, the closing lineup was: Holiday, Teague, Forbes, Connaughton, Lopez. It worked, but it made an over-reffed and already tenuous game needlessly closer. A potentially costly mistake to avoid in the postseason.
Incomplete: Jordan Nwora (4 minutes), Mamadi Diakite (DNP), Sam Merrill (DNP), Rodions Kurucs (DNP), Axel Toupane (DNP), Justin Jackson (DNP)
What could be an interesting faceoff with the league’s worst team by record tonight is probably not going to feature storylines like Holiday getting another shot at Kevin Porter Jr. (out with a sprained left ankle) or Giannis putting Kelly Olynyk (questionable with right ankle soreness) through the basket. Naaratives are scarce with 6 games to go, but Milwaukee has one of the easiest remaining schedules (so does Philly) and 4 more wins won’t shock me, even with starters resting. Is that enough to seize the 2 seed? I won’t endeavor a prediction: I know better than to make them in 2021. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.