Surging Bucks Look to Regroup with Three Games Remaining
The Milwaukee Bucks, now 40-39, were arguably the hottest team in all of basketball with a 14-3 record from March 3rd through the 31st. They became the first team in franchise history since 1971 to win at least 14 games in the same month.
Not only was that improbable run instrumental in helping vault them outside of the playoffs all the way up to a tie for the 5th spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but they also gained the attention of the league as Giannis Antetokounmpo was awarded the Eastern Conference player of the month for the first time in his career while head coach Jason Kidd was named coach of the month as well. Both were very well deserved as Antetokounmpo averaged 22.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game during March while failing to reach double figures in points just once. Kidd, on the other hand, started to figure out a more consistent rotation which has made Milwaukee an extremely dangerous beast for anyone come playoff time.
That being said, there’s still three games left in the season and Milwaukee has yet to officially lock up a playoff spot. After last night’s road loss to the Pacers, who are also looking to clinch a playoff spot themselves, the Bucks have now dropped three straight games to start the month of April. They now find themselves in the 6th spot in the East with just a one game lead over the 7th seeded Bulls and 8th seeded Pacers. The issues can be pointed to many things but one thing that seems to stand out is absence of potential rookie of year Malcolm Brogdon, who has missed the last four games with a back injury.
The 36th overall pick out of Virginia has been quite the find for the Bucks this season and has since taken over the starting point guard role from free agent Matthew Dellavedova for the second time this season. Brogdon has been a rookie beyond his years. At 23 years old, he’s already older than Giannis Antetokounmpo (22), Jabari Parker (21), and Rashad Vaughn (20). The former ACC player of the year ranks in the top 10 in almost every major category among rookies including 3rd in points (10.3), 2nd in minutes (26.5), 8th in field goal percentage (45.7%), 2nd in three point percentage (40.4%), 4th in free throws (86.5%), 1st in assists (4.3), and 1st in steals (1.14). He has widely exceeded expectations in his first NBA season and has gained a ton of respect from not only his teammates but also his peers around the league. He’s done more than what the Bucks have asked of him and he’s been crucial their success down the stretch. Without Brogdon in the lineup the last four games, the Bucks have struggled on both ends of the floor. They were able to squeeze by a checked out Pistons team, but haven’t looked remotely close to the same team they did during their improbable March run. They couldn’t find that extra gear to overcome the Mavericks at home Sunday and looked lost the last two road games especially in Tuesday night’s 30-point loss to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. The chemistry Brogdon has created with players such as Greg Monroe, a potential sixth man of the year candidate, has also taken a hit. In the last four games, the Bucks have been -63 with Monroe on the floor. In March, Monroe scored in double figures in 15 of 17 games but has failed to score more than eight points in the last four games while still playing 20 minutes per contest.
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In order to help subside Brogdon’s absence, the Bucks signed rookie point guard Gary Payton II to multiyear contract. Payton II is the son of future Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton, whom the Bucks acquired in “the trade”. As Jon McGlockin said on the Bucks broadcast, if you blinked then you might have missed his dad in a Bucks uniform. Payton Sr. played just 28 games for Milwaukee in 2003 after coming over from Seattle in exchange for Ray Allen. I could go on all day about that dark time in Bucks history but you get the point. As for Gary Payton Jr., he brings a lot of toughness on the defensive end just like his dad. He averaged 14.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in 49 starts for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League this season. He even recorded a 51-point performance against the LA Defenders earlier this year. He’s certainly been thrown into the fire from the get go, so to speak. After signing a contract on Sunday, he’s played in all three games averaging 4.3 points, 2.0 assists and 1.3 rebounds while playing in 18.0 minutes per game. Although Milwaukee has yet to win a game with Payton in uniform, he’s made quite the early impression. Despite still getting up to the speed of the NBA game and getting used to his new teammates, he’s shown that he definitely belongs. Once Brogdon returns, his minutes will surely decrease but he will be a nice piece to have on the bench for the playoffs. There’s no doubt he will be ready when called upon.
Whether it’s a lack of focus or energy, now is not the time to make excuses for Milwaukee’s latest lapse. They’ve seemed to have done a complete 180 since the end of March. Making the playoffs is one thing, but limping into the playoffs on a losing streak is not how you want to end a season. It’s getting down to the wire and teams are either fighting for a playoff spot, trying to improve their seeding, or simply just trying to play spoiler. Understanding that, they must find a way to regroup and get back to playing the brand of basketball they are capable of playing. Going back to their 103-100 win over the Celtics in Boston back on March 29th, the Bucks played one of their most complete games of the year. Giannis had a typical Giannis night with 22 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks while Khris Middleton added 19 points on an efficient 8-14 shooting. Malcolm Brogdon took over the game with clutch play after clutch play down the stretch finishing with 16 points and nine assists including a dagger jump shot over elite defender Avery Bradley that put Milwaukee up three with just seconds remaining. Greg Monroe did his thing and poured in 16 points to go along with eight rebounds off the bench. It was an all-around great team effort and that win put the rest of the league on notice that the Bucks are a legit threat to anyone come playoff time.
When the Bucks are clicking on all cylinders and are feeding off each other on both ends of the floor, they are a difficult matchup for anyone. It goes back to what I said last month, winning in the NBA comes down to energy, effort and execution. With three games left in the regular season, the Bucks magic number to clinch is two. They start tomorrow night in Philadelphia against the 76ers followed by their final home game of the season on Monday against the Hornets before finishing up on the road at Boston on Wednesday. With Boston still fighting with Cleveland for the top seed in the East, these next two games are that much more crucial. I hate to say the phrase must win but they have to come out and impose their will over a depleted 76ers team and follow it up at home against a checked out Hornets team, both of which are already making offseason plans. Just because Philly and Charlotte aren’t playoff teams, though, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t love to play spoiler. There’s a reason they play 82 games and not 79. If the Bucks want to avoid playing Cleveland or Boston in the first round, then it’s up to them to buck up and finish the season strong.