Hungry Bucks Finding Identity In Time for Playoff Run
Who doesn’t love March Madness? The college basketball frenzy has once again lived up to its name with exciting tournament action around the country. While brackets have been busted and we fall in love with the Cinderella stories, the Milwaukee Bucks have been having quite a month of their own. When the Bucks fell to 26-33 after an embarrassing road loss to the Denver Nuggets back on March 1, the odds of making the playoffs seemed slim. Fast forward to now and the Deer are 36-35 while finding themselves in the midst of a heated playoff race after winning an NBA best 10 of their last 12 games including a crucial six game winning streak followed by a 4-2 west coast road trip.
The Bucks 4-2 West Coast trip marked the first time since the 1988-89 season that the Bucks have won four games on a single road trip. pic.twitter.com/YS4AXwBtWB— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 24, 2017
It’s been an incredible turnaround, to say the least, as they’ve gone from lottery team to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. What’s even more impressive is that they’re only a game out of the fifth spot and they’ve done it without two key contributors.
Khash Feeling It
Despite not having Jabari Parker and Michael Beasley, the Bucks have found their x-factor in Khris Middleton. The 26-year-old shooting guard seems to be exactly what Milwaukee needed for the stretch run. After leading the Bucks in scoring last season at 18.3 points per game, Middleton was primed to build off that success before suffering a torn hamstring in training camp that sidelined him for the first 50 games of the season. Since his return, he’s made his presence felt.
That tweet was sent out prior to the Bucks 116-98 win over the Sacramento Kings last night, which makes Milwaukee now 11-2 in games he starts. Middleton only scored 13 points, but the Bucks were +14 with him on the floor as they cruised from start to finish. Not only is he asserting himself on offense but he’s also been a factor on the defensive end with his ability to get in the passing lane and cover elite perimeter scorers. Middleton was arguably the Bucks best two-way player last season and has been able to back it up this season even with the emergence of the Greek Freak. Here’s some more numbers for you.
Since he's starting, Bucks w/ Middleton:— All the Bucks (@AllTheBucks) March 23, 2017
ORtg 112.2 (4)
DRtg 101.8 (5)
NRtg 10.4 (1)
ORtg 101.6 (29)
DRtg 108.2 (22)
NRtg -6.6 (27)
Nonetheless, the return of Khris Middleton to the Bucks lineup has made dealing with the loss of Parker a bit easier to take. It just makes you wonder how good this team can really be if they had a healthy Big Three for an entire season. For now, the playmaking and scoring of Middleton sure makes this Bucks team that much more dangerous in the playoffs.
Defending and Running
Back when the Bucks made the playoffs two seasons ago, they ranked among the best in the league in defensive efficiency. They used their length to disrupt passing lanes and block shots, which allowed them to get out and run. After struggling last season, they’ve recently gotten back to these principles.
That number is now 16 after Milwaukee held Sacramento to 98 points last night. What’s been the difference? Despite a slow start this season; the Bucks have finally started to buy into assistant coach Sean Sweeney’s system. While they remain vulnerable to three point shooters at times, Sweeney’s scheme, which revolves around helping and switching while trying to force turnovers, works when everyone is clicking on all cylinders. The Bucks currently rank 10th in the league in opponent points per game at 104.2 while scoring 104.6 points per game of their own. Milwaukee also forces 14.2 turnovers per game, which is good for ninth in the league. Considering where they were through the first half of the season, those numbers are impressive and have translated into wins.
While they’ve stepped up their defensive pressure, the same can be said for their three point shooting. Milwaukee is connecting on 37.2% of their threes this season, which ties them with Washington for seventh in the league. While still hovering in the bottom 10 of the league in makes (8.7) and attempts (23.3), it’s still an improvement to last season where they finished dead last in the league in both categories. Beyond Middleton’s 48.3%, the Bucks have four other guys at 40% or higher including Michael Beasley (42.1%), potential Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (40.6), and Tony Snell (40.4), who leads the Bucks with 1.8 makes per game. Other key contributors have been 39-year-old veteran Jason Terry (40%) and Mirza Teletovic (34.4%), who has been a bit streaky at times. Lastly, despite shooting at just a 28% clip, the Greek Freak has been better at choosing when to shoot them as of late while making defenses respect it just enough for him to get into the paint. What’s the difference from last season’s demise? The fact that they can have multiple threats on the floor allows for much more spacing while not having to rely on just one guy carry the load each night. That was the case most times with Khris Middleton last season. It’s been a thing of beauty watching them be unselfish and make the extra pass for the best available shot.
Another thing that was missed last season was veteran leadership. When Milwaukee made the playoffs two seasons ago, vets like Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless, Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia were a big presence on and off the floor. Guys like that were missing from last year’s team.
Enter Jason Terry and Michael Beasley. Terry, a 17-year NBA veteran who has been through and seen it all, has been instrumental in helping these young guys grow. He’s the closest thing you can get to a player/coach in this league and has been the perfect role model for everyone to follow. Beasley, on the other hand, has taken on the role of the tough nosed veteran that was voided by OJ Mayo. Along with Greg Monroe, they aren’t going to be intimidated by anyone and are always there to back their teammates up. Toughness can be underrated in this league and having these kinds of players is very important come playoff time.
Giannis Being Giannis
Being without Jabari Parker is one thing, but the Bucks would be nowhere without their newest All-Star and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. He leads the team in all five major categories this season with averages of 23.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game.
Not enough can be said about the Greek Freak. He’s earned everything he’s gotten this point but even he will tell you he’s just getting started. Even since the All-Star break, he’s been a different beast. He understands that his team feeds off him and it’s important that he comes out with a more consistent energy level every night. Even on his off nights, he’s still going to try and do whatever it takes to help give his team the best chance to win. Each and every game, we see the evolution of Giannis into the superstar he’s capable of being. Sorry Michael Jordan, but the ceiling is not the roof for Giannis. The scary thing is no one knows what his ceiling will be. This Bucks team has a chance to do some special things as long as Giannis is healthy and playing at a high level. They will go as far as he takes them.
Milwaukee is over .500 for the first time since they were 20-19 back on January 15, and the way they’re playing right now suggests they are ready to make some noise come playoff time. They’ve developed an identity and have matured as the season has progressed. They not only believe in each other but also believe in what they can accomplish. Most of all, they have developed a great team chemistry and seem to be having a lot of fun on the court. That being said, they still have a lot of work to do. In their 11 remaining games, six are potential playoff teams. After the next two games at home, they finish off with six of their last nine games on the road. Winning 10 of 12 is great and all, but it’s time to keep pushing forward. Get your popcorn ready; it should be a lot of fun to watch.