In our first week back from the All-Star break, us Bucks fans saw the team begin to address their pre-break woes (especially in third quarters) as the week progressed, if not always convincingly. Last we checked in on individual player evaluations, the main issue I highlighted was Khris Middleton getting back on the right track. With a huge first half on Wednesday and a strong effort against Brooklyn, he made good on that expectation. So did Bobby Portis, whose shooting cratered leading into the break, but he quickly shook that off with a hot night from deep last Saturday. Wesley Matthews continues to be ice-cold, unfortunately. Serge Ibaka isn’t shooting well either, but is becoming more visibly comfortable in the offense’s flow, eliminating the newcomer slip-ups.
The main teamwide problem, however, was clearly on defense. That’s still a work in progress, but we saw some very positive developments in both the Hornets and Heat (in the fourth quarter, at least) contests, the latter of which had much to do with appropriate schematic adjustments by coach Mike Budenholzer. More on that below...
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (two weeks ago: A+)
3 GP, 32.9 MPG, 27.7 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 5.7 APG, 3.7 TPG, 1.7 SPG, 1.7 BPG, .460/.167/.854
Predictably, Giannis’ statlines were to their usual abundant standards, with some underwhelming field goal percentages propped up to higher efficiency thanks to his success at the free-throw line. After a first half marred by foul trouble, it looked like he’d again struggle with Miami and their physicality, but he came out in the second half attacking without abandon. After a big 14-point fourth quarter, it’s his finest effort in a Heat matchup in quite some time, even though he missed that layup with 34 seconds left.
Khris Middleton: A (two weeks ago: C-)
3 GP, 33.3 MPG, 23.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.0 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .429/.435/.900
If it weren’t for Middleton’s 21 point first half to bail out a whistle-stymied Giannis, Milwaukee likely loses on Wednesday, to say nothing of his pull-up triple to cut the Miami lead to one with 13.5 remaining. His defense on Duncan Robinson wasn’t quite as good as it was in last year’s first round series, as he kept getting stuffed trying to go over screens. However, his one-on-one defense on Jimmy Butler was sensational when tasked with checking the Heat star, contributing significantly to the latter’s rough evening. He also was the only Buck outside of Portis to really show up for the Nets contest.
Jrue Holiday: A- (two weeks ago: B+)
3 GP, 34.1 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 8.7 APG, 3.7 TPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .537/.500/.750
We have to acknowledge Holiday’s gamewinner on Wednesday first and foremost, a single play encapsulating how much he abused the much weaker Gabe Vincent all evening. He shifted between Tyler Herro and Butler with effective results, on the heels of some solid work on LaMelo Ball two days prior. He certainly shot and scored brilliantly this week, but he gets some big demerits for serious turnover issues in the Nets loss, which almost re-emerged on Wednesday. He’s had a tendency of late to be stripped or otherwise careless with his handle (recall that he also coughed it up 7 times in a loss to Portland a few weeks back) and when he’s losing so many possessions, it’s easy to see how that contributes to a Bucks L.
Bobby Portis: A (two weeks ago: B)
3 GP, 30.2 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.7 TPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .545/.519/.500
It looked like Portis would continue torching the Fiserv Forum nets from three-point land with a couple early makes on Wednesday, but he faded into the background by the fourth, missing one attempt from the corner that would have been massive. Still, he did his best Brook Lopez on Bam Adebayo in the early stages of the game, before the Heat big man realized he didn’t need to settle for jumpers. As for the rest of the week, the word scorching comes to mind, as he was 12/21 from downtown prior to Wednesday evening. It was pretty comical to see how Brooklyn was seemingly content to let him repeatedly fire away from the corners, no matter how many he buried.
Grayson Allen: A (two weeks ago: B-)
3 GP, 21.5 MPG, 9.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.7 TPG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .556/.455/.667
You may not have noticed Allen too much in any of this week’s outings thanks to his low shot volume, but not only were his attempts going in at a high rate (well, outside of that free throw in the closing seconds on Saturday), he contributed in ways both obvious and subtle to Milwaukee’s wins. On Wednesday, I was particularly impressed with his early drives to the rim through Miami’s tough interior, and his seven rebounds: some of them were pretty athletic and well-timed snares that could easily have found a Heat player’s hands instead. The Bucks matched him with P.J. Tucker on defense, making him a help defender which allowed for double teams on Miami’s more pressing offensive threats.
Serge Ibaka: B+ (two weeks ago: B)
3 GP, 16.6 MPG, 4.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.3 TPG, 0.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .500/.200/1.000
In the aftermath of his back injuries last year, I’m starting to think that the Clippers miscast Ibaka as more of a starting center expected to pitch in on offense, like he was his Raptors days. With the Bucks, he’s in a much better role for his current playing condition as a versatile, boxing-out defensive big off the bench. Even if his shooting never comes around as a member of this team, his still-present quickness and strength clearly benefit Milwaukee’s defense. That combo is even playable on dynamic guards: he had some excellent possessions on Kyrie Irving (who was a madman with those shots he took, and made). I’d liked to have seen more of him on Adebayo the other night.
Wesley Matthews: B (two weeks ago: C-)
3 GP, 24.1 MPG, 4.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.7 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .214/.200/1.000
Though I lauded Middleton above for his work on Butler, Matthews was often the primary defender on Jimmy Buckets and I found his defensive performance to be superior to his teammate’s. Matthews also switched frequently onto a very dangerous Herro and alongside Holiday, kept the Whitnall High alum a little more honest down the stretch. He’s playing an awful lot for someone shooting so poorly, but he does have a knack for making shots when the Bucks need them, like when he put the finishing touches on their comeback from 11 points down, putting them briefly in front midway through the third.
DeAndre’ Bembry: B (two weeks ago: on the Nets)
3 GP, 13.9 MPG, 2.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.0 TPG, 0.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .600/.000/.000
I’m not sure what Bembry’s place on this team will ultimately be, and it’s clear we can’t expect much offense from him, but his work on Monday night encouraged me that he belongs. After Ball lit the Bucks up in the first quarter, he and Jevon Carter stepped up their point-of-attack defense enough to disrupt the flow Charlotte’s star established. Those two were a big reason why Ball faded into the background in the second quarter, and the Hornets mustered just 44 points from that point until the fourth.
Jevon Carter: B (two weeks ago: also on the Nets)
3 GP, 16.5 MPG, 4.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.0 TPG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .273/.500/1.000
With those same plaudits I gave Bembry applying also for Carter’s defense on Ball, he also looked great on his former teammate Irving on Saturday. Like with Ibaka, their efforts may go unnoticed thanks to the Brooklyn road warrior’s insane shotmaking skills, but how can you ask for more than staying glued to him through all his maneuvering and giving him such little space to shoot? Given how Gabe Vincent and Herro sank all kinds of expertly-defended shots on Wednesday, maybe Carter could have done some good had he played more than 12 minutes. Similar caveats on offense to those of Bembry exist, I suppose.
Jordan Nwora: D+ (two weeks ago: A-)
3 GP, 10.1 MPG, 2.7 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.3 APG, 1.0 TPG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, .300/.333/.000
Nwora played just 5 minutes two nights ago before looking hobbled and exiting... or was Bud just giving him a quick hook? During that stretch, he was -6 as the Heat embarked on a 10-0 run to tie things up, and he blew multiple defensive assignments. He contributed little else this week, but I want to make sure everyone knows that on Wednesday, he managed to make as many shots as Butler in 11 fewer attempts.
Mike Budenholzer: A (two weeks ago: C+)
2-1 W-L, 120.3 ORtg (4th), 113.2 DRtg (18th), 7.1 NetRtg (8th)
What did the Bucks in versus the Nets was missed free throws, turnovers, and a ridiculous amount of Irving’s high-difficulty shots falling. I certainly won’t say the defense was good, but consider that 10 of those 44 Nets points in the third came immediately on the fast break off live-ball turnovers.
Bud gets an A this week for the adjustments he made at halftime against the Heat. So much of Milwaukee’s recent defensive struggles stemmed from an over-reliance on switching: teams easily found mismatches to exploit by switching guys like Jusuf Nurkic onto Holiday. When the Bucks start going over screens and send drop defenders to help (essentially their base scheme), their results were a lot better. This is how Bud had the Bucks defend the Heat initially, but by the second quarter it was clear it wasn’t working. Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon crushed defenders on screens to easily free up snipers, mainly Robinson.
There was a very obvious change that Bud needed to make, and antithetical to what I just said, it was to go back to switching. In the second half, nearly every shot the Heat took (and thanks to some Irving-like shotmaking by Vincent and Herro, many of them found net) had a Buck defender in their assignment’s grill because they liberally switched screens. It’s infuriating how often those shots fell, even with Milwaukee face-guarding Miami’s snipers and giving them zero room. The concept and its execution were both sound, though: seeing that effort, it was clear in the fourth that the Bucks played well enough to deserve that win.
Incomplete: Thanasis Antetokounmpo (1 GP, 11 MIN), Lindell Wigginton (2 GP, 10 MIN) Sandro Mamukelashvili (DNP), Pat Connaughton (injured), George Hill (injured), Brook Lopez (injured)
Though the Bucks may catch some breaks with their two tough opponents ahead in due to Zach LaVine’s troublesome knee and Devin Booker’s recent COVID test, efforts like their performance against the Nets will not do the trick. Holiday has to take better care of the ball. He and all of Milwaukee’s starters also cannot afford their recently-stellar offensive production to slip, given how punchless the current reserve unit with scoring. While yes, Bud nailed the in-game defensive gameplan shift on Wednesday, what worked in the second half isn’t something we should see every evening. So it’s incumbant on him to establish the right look from tip-off as much as it is to recognize when he needs to adjust.
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.