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Pint Glass Half Full: Reasons for Milwaukee Bucks Optimism

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

To longtime Milwaukee Bucks fans, this will sound blasphemous, but I trust this team to respond in Game Three. Please knock on wood accordingly. Even after all the defensive exertion in Game Two that ultimately fell short, I find myself feeling not all that pessimistic, dare I say even optimistic, as the Bucks try to emerge from yet another 0-2 hole. For the glass half-empty crowd, I’ll do my best to acknowledge rational counterpoints, but here are a few reasons I’m still feeling faithful as Bango and company return home.

0-2 Isn’t New

Before the Brooklyn Nets series, I would’ve told you that going down 0-2 was a death knell for the Bucks. Too often we saw this franchise collapse like cardboard in the rain when faced with any semblance of adversity. But then, the Nets series happened. After falling by 40+ in Game Two, it felt like the nadir. And even after eking out a win in Game Three, the process hadn’t really given anyone reason for optimism. Sure, the Bucks got injury luck in that Nets series to pull it out, but they’ve already played materially much better in these first two Finals games in a significantly more hostile road environment.

The box score from the first tilt against Brooklyn doesn’t look all that different from the first two Finals games, but I thought there was significantly better defensive effort and notable adjustments already on Milwaukee’s side. However you slice it, Milwaukee’s outlook was dimmer in the Nets series after two games than this one. This team has already defied our ingrained low expectations and pulled out the narrowest of series wins against the Playoff’s best performer in Kevin Durant. They punched back down 0-2, then 3-2, and won. After witnessing that, I can’t help but see once seemingly insurmountable situations as potentially surmountable.

Giannis Looked like Giannis

I already wrote about his incredible Game Two, and outside of maybe three jumpers that might not normally rattle in, everything about his performance felt eminently repeatable. When he’s attacking the rim, the Suns don’t have a single player capable of stopping him completely. Jae Crowder might be strong enough and DeAndre Ayton may be skilled enough, but each also come with their own limitations. They can slow him down, but stopping this...

Eighteen trips to the free throw line may not always be in the cards for Giannis either, but there’s more than enough positive signs from Game Two that he could be the best player in this series. If Milwaukee is going to win, that must be true.

Khris Can’t Play this Poorly...Right?

If you’re looking for a scapegoat in Game Two, do I have the rangy wing for you! After letting Jrue Holiday hog the criticism after dropping Game One, Khris Middleton wanted a bite at the rotten apple. A finer shooting night from Middleton likely yields an even series right now, but what’s done is done. We’ve seen this story before, Middleton certainly can play like Batman the proverbial “number two,” but so far, he’s applied a different interpretation of “number two” on the court. He got a pass in Game One, but 29 points on 26 shots certainly isn’t a picture of efficiency. He still hasn’t attempted a free throw (to be fair, he isn’t a high-volume foul drawer but he’s gotta work those margins) and is shooting merely 6-18 from deep.

The fact is, he’s been up and down the entire Playoffs. Two-face is right. He scored 30 points total in Games One and Two against Brooklyn. For the most part, he was stellar the rest of that series. He had 30 combined in the first two Atlanta games, although he might’ve had more if the second game was competitive. In between these stinkers, his outrageous shooting has helped paper over everything. This is who Khris Middleton is, a player with variance that might look stellar one game and just “okay” in another. What the Bucks can’t do is allow him to fade into the background like he did Thursday evening, posting his lowest usage rate (18.7%) of the Playoffs. I understand the intent last night was to help Holiday get going and Giannis had his groove on, but Middleton needs to demand the ball more and work for his shot. If you’re hoping for optimism, you can look at his home/road and rest splits these Playoffs:

Khris Middleton Playoff Splits

Home 8 38.7 24 8.3 17.4 47.5 2.6 7 37.5 5.8 84.8 7.8 5.4 2.5 1.8 0.4
Road 11 40.3 22.4 8.5 20.9 40.4 2.6 8.4 31.5 3 93.9 7.9 5 3.8 1.3 0.1

He’s also shot better on two days rest throughout the regular season, but everyone in the series will likely be benefiting from the additional rest.

There’s a very strong possibility Middleton will have another off-night in this series, and if he does, the Bucks will be in trouble. This stuff is simple sometimes: Mikal Bridges has more points (41) than Khris Middleton (40) so far. We saw him respond against Brooklyn, can he do it again?

Bud Has Adjusted

Yes, as there will be with any coach, there are plenty of quibbles to be had, but all-in-all, the fact Milwaukee emerged with a “supporting cast” narrative rather than a “Bud blows” storyline after Game Two has to be seen as a positive. We’ve seen the slander for years, but Bud whipped out zone, switching 1-5, drop coverage, the whole defensive bag in Game One. Game Two, he dialed it back and I thought found a fairly successful defensive strategy. Move Jrue Holiday onto Paul, pick him up close to half court so it takes longer to get into their actions, fight over screens and close the gap while also switching situationally. On the backend, Brook Lopez played really impressively trying to disrupt their midrange jumpers while also protecting the paint. A reinvigorated Giannis helped on the backside too, but the Bucks disrupting the Suns third most steady player in Ayton was a tick in the right direction.

The problem is that some of the pinching into the perimeter created kickout passing lanes, which in turn allowed Bridges to step up. I didn’t think those looks were as clean in the second half though. The corner threes started to mount up, with Phoenix going 10-17 from the corners, making up 19% of their total shots even though the Bucks typically only allow 9.2% of opponent shots from the corners throughout this postseason. It felt as if several of those came when the Suns push the pace and Milwaukee doesn’t get their defense set, but there are also some of the plain over-helping variety. Regardless, we saw Bud switch tactics and we have to hope he’ll have some new wrinkles for Game Three that prevent the easy corner looks. He also has to make some decisions about whether more or less smallball is the answer. I think there are arguments either way, but I wouldn’t mine leaning more on Lopez given he’s more dependable offensively than Tucker or Connaughton. Bud has already started shortening his rotation in Game Two with Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes playing only five minutes each. Teague minutes aside, he’s starting to crunch his core players for more minutes. If nothing else, Bud has shown he’s not going down with his system’s ship again this year.

Home Cooking Has Helped

Maybe it’s having Usinger’s closer to home, but the Bucks are 7-1 at Fiserv Forum so far this postseason, dropping only Game One against Atlanta. That shows that they’re beatable in the arena, but this team has also clearly gotten a boost from the home crowd. The hope is that it may settle down some of those Holiday rushed shots, help Khris get into a rhythm and potentially allow spot minutes by someone like Portis to be productive rather than punishing. This point is less tangible than the others, but Milwaukee is also about to host its first Finals game in 47 freakin’ years! If that doesn’t lead to a hyped-up crowd that somehow helps the players get a leg up on the Suns, I’m not sure what atmosphere would.

The math is not in Milwaukee’s favor right now, but they have a decent shot at still turning this into a lengthy series. It all starts with Game Three, a must win for the Bucks. Historically, this team has made a fool out of optimists like me; let’s hope for another surprise this round.