A few Bucks made good on my hopes last week in the two games surrounding Sunday’s absolute stinker: Giannis Antetokounmpo took much better care of the ball, Donte DiVincenzo saw further success inside, and Jrue Holiday reasserted himself as an offensive focal point. These were key areas holding the team back in previous losses, but as Holiday’s prolific shot-creating waxed, Khris Middleton’s waned. George Hill couldn’t establish any consistency after hurting his neck. Defensive rebounding is still a significant issue lately without Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis isn’t doing enough to address this by pulling in his own boards or boxing out for others. It’s one step forward, one step back. Sound familiar? It should, because Milwaukee is 8-8 in its last 16 games, but thankfully is just 1.5 back of the East’s top seed, as other teams are catching up in the loss column while the Bucks are idle.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: B+)
3 GP, 34.3 MPG, 33.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 6.0 APG, 2.3 TPG, 0.7 SPG, 1.0 BPG, .593/.214/.750
Just monster numbers from the two-time MVP, who has scored 25+ points in 17 straight games. Giannis needed badly to cut down on unforced turnovers and succeeded with only three in the past two games. Tuesday night was his fourth triple-double, already as many as he racked up in his second MVP season. He settled for jumpers a bit too often and took more threes than he should have against Denver, though.
Khris Middleton: C (last week: A)
3 GP, 31.5 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.3 TPG, 1.7 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .395/.235/.800
Pretty disappointing efforts from Middleton in the last two contests, only taking 20 shots combined. At least the one three he hit on Wednesday was maybe the game’s biggest shot. I’m not sure what got into him on Sunday: Aaron Gordon is a stout defender, but that usually never stops Middleton from putting them up. After such a great week and month of January, I thought he’d be feeling it in the near term. Maybe his surprising third All-Star nod will get him back on track.
Jrue Holiday: A (last week: B)
3 GP, 34.3 MPG, 20.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 6.7 APG, 3.3 TPG, 1.7 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .575/.500/1.000
Holiday picked up the scoring slack from Middleton in a big way, splashing home three after three and aggressively knifing into the paint. Like Wesley Matthews, he was asked to guard up a few positions many times on defense this week, notably checking Nikola Jokic on Sunday. Milwaukee’s defensive strategy on the MVP-candidate was flawed (more on that below), but don’t blame him. It would have been nice to see him on his usual assignments in Denver’s backcourt instead, especially given how much the Nuggets’ guards made the Bucks pay for gifting them with plenty of open jumpers while Holiday was busy inside.
Bobby Portis: B (last week: B-)
3 GP, 28.5 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 0.7 APG, 1.0 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .429/.231/.000
Firing a lot of blanks lately from deep is Portis, who is effective enough down low that he could stand to drive a bit more when his slow-release jumper isn’t falling. Defensive rebounding is an uncharacteristic Achilles heel for the Bucks lately, partially because he isn’t spending as much time on opposing big men even when Milwaukee isn’t going small. I’m not sure if he’s good enough at boxing out to address this and he’s not a very good rebounder for his size, but Portis needs to crash the boards harder than he did last week.
Grayson Allen: A (last week: D-)
3 GP, 31.1 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.3 APG, 0.7 TPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .444/.412/1.000
Now that the Big Three have played together a nice long stretch, Allen is starting to prove he can indeed produce alongside them, which was certainly a question earlier this year. As his numbers show, he’s contributing beyond just three-level scoring. His last month was pretty rough for a few reasons, but by finishing January strong, it looks like he’s past it.
Pat Connaughton: B (last week: A-)
3 GP, 22.9 MPG, 5.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.3 TPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .400/.444/.000
This is about the quietest week I can remember from Connaughton this year, whose volume was too low on Sunday. While he doesn’t need to be creating shots to the degree Middleton does or free himself off screens like Allen, only one or two three-point attempts like we saw on Friday and Sunday tells me that Connaughton isn’t getting open like usual, therefore not receiving kickouts.
George Hill: A- (last week: B-)
1 GP, 15 MIN, 7 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 0 TOV, 2 STL, 0 BLK, .500/.500/1.000
Only one game to go off, but Hill played pretty well and the Bucks missed his playmaking the next two games. Unfortunately, his sore neck will likely keep him out tomorrow evening, though coach Mike Budenholzer did say that Hill would make the West Coast trip, so hopefully we see him by Thursday.
Wesley Matthews: C+ (last week: B)
3 GP, 15.3 MPG, 2.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.0 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .167/.000/1.000
That shooting line is sadly not a typo. Perhaps still feeling the after-effects of that deep knee bruise, Matthews has missed his last 10 three-point attempts and is a non-factor on offense lately. He’s still playing great defense, though, especially considering how much size he’s being asked to give up: he spent significant time on Mitchell Robinson and Nikola Jokic this past week in small lineups. Certainly not ideal, but he’s excelling at what the coaching staff is asking of him as a defender.
Donte DiVincenzo: B (last week: B)
3 GP, 20.8 MPG, 6.0 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.3 TPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .438/.250/1.000
Last week I discussed how DiVincenzo needs to build on his recent success inside, and while he’s not driving super frequently, he went 5/7 in the paint this week with one very wild putback. No longer completely lost on offense, he’s re-staked a claim in the rotation with some decent play that may appeal to trade partners, if only just to prove he’s not a liability. With the deadline approaching, this could be his penultimate appearance in this column.
Jordan Nwora: B (last week: C-)
2 GP, 7.1 MPG, 2.5 PPG, 0.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 0.0 TPG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .500/1.000/.000
In 13 minutes on Sunday, Nwora was a team-high minus -3 in the Nuggets beatdown, so by default he was one of only a few Bucks whose performance one can’t complain about. Things were still close while he was on the floor at first too.
Mike Budenholzer: C+ (last week: B)
2-1 W-L, 114.7 ORtg (11th), 117.5 DRtg (24th), -2.8 NetRtg (17th)
Some pretty big strategic bones to pick on Sunday, primarily Bud opting to double-team Jokic with smaller defenders and leave Denver’s perimeter players wide open. The big Serbian may be the best passer in the league, so no amount of defenders is going to prevent him from finding open teammates wherever they are. It’s almost better just to make him score: the Kevin Durant treatment would have been the better choice. Milwaukee will hopefully have healthier big men the next time these two teams face, but even if they don’t, crumple up that gameplan and throw it in the fireplace.
Incomplete: Sandro Mamukelashvili (3 GP, 9 MIN), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (2 GP, 7 MIN), Lindell Wigginton (1 GP, 7 MIN), Rodney Hood (1 GP, 6 MIN), Semi Ojeleye (1 GP, 6 MIN), Brook Lopez (injured)
Maybe the most concerning problem with the Bucks last month were their terrible third quarters. How can individual Bucks leave that pattern in January? In general, the Bucks are going on long scoreless droughts in their rough periods. With that in mind, what I said about Holiday last week now goes for Middleton: he needs to hunt his shots more aggressively than in the last two contests. We know that all of the Big Three can be clicking offensively in the same game; we saw this not more than a week ago. Opponent second chance points have often been a major source of scoring runs that have buried Bucks leads, so defensive rebounding needs to be a focus. In addition to correcting his personal (stop tipping the ball, just snare it) and team-impacting performance (boxing out) on the boards, Portis also needs to work out of his current three-point shooting slump. Bud needs to overhaul his strategy on dynamic big men; he’ll have the chance to with Anthony Davis ahead on this week’s schedule.
How would you grade the Bucks’ performance this past week?
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What are your individual grades? Let me know in the comments below.