January is nearly over, and that means only one thing: February is coming.
Oh yeah, the NBA proceeds all the way through, with NBA All Star Weekend as a strange bright spot in an otherwise bleak month. But there’s still a few weeks before we get there, and tonight the Milwaukee Bucks will take on the New Orleans Pelicans.
Where We’re At
The Bucks are...starting to feel like themselves? Maybe? It helps that Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing impossible things on a regular basis, and that Khris Middleton is back on the floor rather than glued to the bench. Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, and the rest of the team are able to sigh with relief now that they are primed to be relegated for roles more befitting their station as NBA players: still some of the best in the history of the sport, but when trophies are your end goal, it’s way easier to have your main guys take the main roles.
After winning three straight games, the Bucks just might be rounding into form. They’ve gone through stretches where Giannis has carried the team, and in his absence Jrue Holiday has stepped up his game. It hasn’t been pretty, not by a long shot, but the team continues to demonstrate the type of toughness and grit that high stakes require. Moreover, the offense seems to be crawling out of the muck; over the last three games, Milwaukee leads the league in pace (109.8) and is sixth in offensive rating (120.6). Those are all games in which Khris Middleton has played, and once he works his way through his 15 minutes-per-game restriction, it’s clear that this team is closing in on their final form for this season.
In terms of injuries, only Bobby Portis (knee) and Serge Ibaka (holding out) are unavailable, while Giannis and MarJon Beauchamp are listed as probable.
In New Orleans, a hot start seems to be coming apart. Losers of six straight, the Pelicans have fallen to fourth in the West and are only three games above 0.500. A massive part of that decline is the absences of Zion Williamson, who remains out with a hamstring issue, and Brandon Ingram, who just returned from a toe injury. Not only that, but a familiar dynamic is in play in the Big Easy: role players being asked to do their jobs and more. From The Bird Writes:
Past the halfway mark of the season, the continuation of important absences have finally taken a toll on the team’s depth. Legs appear heavier, confidence has waned, and some players are still not ready to fulfill bigger roles.
Larry Nance Jr. doesn’t seem to have the same burst he possessed earlier. Dyson Daniels doesn’t have the same confidence when looking for his own shot. Jaxson Hayes lacks consistency in the basic fundamentals. Trey Murphy can’t run into more shots per game despite the great need for an increased number of attempts. Jose Alvarado’s early season shot-making had dropped off — Devonte’ Graham’s has cratered. And CJ McCollum, for as great as he’s been, isn’t a true No. 1 option that can be relied upon on a daily basis.
Player To Watch
Let’s check in with Brook Lopez. The league conversation regarding this season’s Defensive Player of the Year took a hard turn towards Memphis the other day, but Brook has still performed up to the impressive standard he set at the beginning of the year. He has more games with 3 or more blocks (20) than he has with one or none (16), and most of his other individual numbers are up. However, he’s also playing drastically more minutes this season; his 30.4 mpg is the most per-game he’s been on the court since 2015. Was his back surgery last season really an infusion from some fabled fountain of youth? In any case, the Bucks need Brook, and it is worth monitoring how much he plays during these final stretches of the regular season.
Game 50: Against New Orleans, the Bucks will...
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Win big (by 10 or more points)
Win close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose big (by 10 or more points)