Happy New Year and please forgive my tardiness! Wouldn’t you rather read this from the couch on January 1st instead of when I’m writing this around dinnertime on New Year’s Eve? Same. Anywho, now that they’re settled into a clear ten-man rotation, the Bucks did me a solid and hit my 3-0 prediction last week. Was it always pretty? A few quarters in Boston and Orlando sure weren’t, but the holiday gift of an almost-entirely healthy squad supercedes the perfect record. 2022 holds a lot of promise for a team that has a lot of immunity and confidence coarsing through their veins. Their team grade for this week is a solid A.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A+ (last week: health & safety protocols)
Thanks to his best Christmas game yet after going bonkers in the second half, Giannis’ MVP campaign is going a bit more national and will be in the conversation for Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Christmas proved he’s easily one of the league’s top performers when the lights are brightest, but do any of the other superstars come up as big on both sides of the ball? I say no. This man Ayton-ed Robert Williams up 3 with 8.4 seconds left like it was Game 4 of the NBA Finals or something while dropping 36 in just 30 minutes. It even looked like the Celtics had him figured out in the first half when he had a mere 7 points, all in the first quarter. He’s the best player on earth right now. Come at me.
Khris Middleton: A- (last week: A)
Middleton seems to be hitting his stride recently as a reliable 20 per night guy on good efficiency to go with great playmaking. Turnovers are a problem some nights with his ever-loose handles but rarely do they seem to sink the team or affect game outcomes. As I mentioned last week, perhaps the best improvement he’s made this year has been in racking up free throws—not just against younger and undisciplined teams like Orlando either. On Thursday, he combined with Giannis and Jrue Holiday for a cool 19/19 at the charity stripe, all of which came before the 7 minute mark of the fourth quarter with the game still close-ish. He still has a ways to go before he reaches last year’s efficiency given his early-season shooting struggles, but he’s right in line with his first All-Star year.
Jrue Holiday: A (last week: A+)
Speaking of All-Stars, the Bucks should start beating the drum for Holiday, who faces long odds of receiving the honor with the East’s glut of backcourt stars. It would be deserving, though: he’s scored at least 17 in 8 straight games while often guarding the opposition’s best player and usually giving up a bit of size doing so. I don’t think I’ve seen him distribute with such facility as a Buck either: double-digit assist nights are common and his stellar 20:6 assist-to-turnover ratio is somehow only his second-best week in that area this season. He moved above 70% in FT% this week too, a slight bugaboo earlier this month.
Grayson Allen: D+ (last week: A-)
He may not be in danger of losing his starting spot to Donte DiVincenzo, who is also struggling upon his return, but Allen just hasn't been the same player lately as he slides down to a fourth or fifth option. Since torching the Pelicans on December 17th (7/12 from downtown), he’s made 3 of his last 16 three point attempts and his numbers prior to then were below usual too. With most shooters this talented, though, such a slump won’t last.
Bobby Portis: A- (last week: health & safety protocols)
After nearly going scoreless in the second half on Tuesday, I couldn't help but remember the narrative from last season about Portis only having big games against bad teams, which was of course dispelled by the Finals (game 6). Glad that’s ancient history. Nevertheless, the Bucks’ newest All-Star candidate needed little time to get back in the swing of things after a week off in the protocols (maybe he didn’t have COVID given the quick return to testing negative): some ugly moments against Boston early were erased by a solid second half. Now that he's pushed the up-and-down Boogie Cousins into a more appropriate role and his touch within 10 feet is back, so is the Bucks’ dominance in the paint (51.3 PPG this week).
Pat Connaughton: B (last week: C+)
Sandwiching two more invisible performances with a more typical effort on Tuesday, Connaughton’s 3P% is just above 40% on the year after shooting just 30.8% from deep over his last ten contests. Any downturn he’s had isn’t as pronounced as Allen’s, but with Wesley Matthews’ resurgence and the Bucks’ return to nearly-full health, his role is a little smaller. 20.7 minutes per game this week reflects that but thankfully, the Bucks need not lean on him as heavily for scoring if the current rotation stays healthy.
George Hill: B+ (last week: B+)
Another typically steady week from the vet, whose production is rarely noticeable but whose presence never hurts. Hill’s minutes are ticking downward thankfully—his current 25.8 per night is his highest figure since 2017–18—so my hope is that with reduced burn and perhaps an occasional DNP-CD not only keeps him fresh for the playoff rotation, but also improves his shot from distance (just a 31% 3P% so far)
Donte DiVincenzo: C+ (last week: health & safety protocols)
Back for his first game action since last May, DiVincenzo shot 4/10 from behind the three-point arc and 0/7 from inside it. I’m not sure if he worked on his inside game at all during his recovery because his already-bad finishing at the rim looks even more abysmal, but he seems to have a new knack for drawing fouls after getting to the line 11 times (sinking all but one try) in the two Magic games. His plus rebounding skills haven’t escaped him either (15 total in Orlando) so it’s not as if his athleticism was sapped from ankle surgery, but he’s going to have to start hitting something at the rim if he wants to rejoin the starting lineup.
DeMarcus Cousins: B+ (last week: A-)
Now that Portis is back in the starting lineup, Boogie is settling into the backup big role I envisioned for him around 15 minutes a night rather well. He fouls just as much (his personals per 36 rate is way up from last week) and made some serious blunders on Christmas that deserved being yanked, sure. However, even in reduced playing time he’s maintaining a similar scoring output, rebounding more, still adding a block or two for good measure, and drawing fouls at a high rate. Since Portis often slides to the 4, this might be the best offensive production the Bucks have gotten from a true backup 5 under Bud.
Wesley Matthews: A (last week: A)
The arrows keep hitting their targets for the newest member of the Bucks’ rotation, with Matthews burying the go-ahead shot with 30.3 seconds left on Christmas Day in what might be the Bucks’ season highlight. Able to get inside and bruise for an and-one on occasion, the Marquette alum is also approaching 50% from deep this season. While I’m not positive this high level of role player performance will last, his return has been a ton of fun so far.
Mike Budenholzer: A (last week: B+)
I was pretty skeptical of Bud for rolling with a Hill/Holiday/Matthews/Middleton/Giannis lineup to close out the Boston game—even against the typically-small Celtics, that crew seemed too lacking in size and athleticism—but Matthews rewarded the gambit with a nice Christmas gift. Most of it was against the woeful Magic, but the defense seems tighter since halftime on Saturday: opponents’ three-point shooting performances are much closer to their season averages lately in terms of both volume and conversion after several weeks where teams carpet-bombed the Bucks nightly.
Incomplete: Thanasis Antetokounmpo (1 minute), Jordan Nwora (DNP), Rodney Hood (DNP), Semi Ojeleye (DNP/health & safety protocols), Sandro Mamukelashvili (DNP), Javonte Smart (DNP), Javin DeLarier (DNP), Brook Lopez (injured)
December was a very kind month to the Bucks from a schedule perspective and may have been the best time to weather a COVID outbreak because it still resulted in an 11-5 record. Milwaukee has a great chance to extend their string of wins past five with the hapless Pelicans and Pistons in the coming days followed by a revenge opportunity against Fred VanVleet’s Raptors. I think they match their season-high eight game unbeaten streak heading into a marquee match with Brooklyn on Friday as the healthy rotation keeps coalescing. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.