Their 46-8 record is the best in the NBA. They are on pace to become the third NBA team to win 70 games in a season. They are the highest-scoring team and have the best defensive efficiency rating in the league. Their 12.1 point differential ranks fourth in league history. They are the only NBA team that hasn’t lost two games in a row. And they have the best player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
So why do many so-called experts remain skeptical about the Milwaukee Bucks’ chances of winning the NBA title?
Two reasons, really. The Bucks haven’t done it before and, in the eyes of NBA folks, a team has to show it can handle playoff pressure before they give it a chance to win 16 postseason games. Also, doubters say the Bucks don’t have enough talent around Antetokounmpo to sustain their regular-season success in the playoffs, especially when it comes to their second-best player, Khris Middleton.
To be sure, the Bucks have concerns even after reaching the All-Star break with the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed in their sights. In the playoffs, they’ll have to worry about opponents exploiting one of their few discernible weaknesses, either by shooting the lights out from 3-point land or forcing them into a halfcourt game like eventual NBA champion Toronto did in last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
With 28 games left in the regular season, I don’t know if the Bucks will win the NBA title, but I do know this: They are a demonstrably better team than they were last season. And that team won an NBA-best 60 games and went 10-1 in the playoffs until its outside shooting deserted it after the first two games of the Toronto series.
There are multiple reasons why these Bucks are better equipped to succeed in the playoffs.
First, they are the NBA’s deepest team, which should insulate them from the type of shooting meltdown they had against Toronto. Sharpshooters Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell joined starting guard Malcolm Brogdon as the biggest departures from last season, but the Bucks are still getting an NBA-best 40.1 points per game from their bench.
Free agent Wesley Matthews replaced Brogdon in the lineup and, while he doesn’t have Brogdon’s offensive versatility, he is the type of 3-and-D player the NBA craves these days. As a physical, experienced defender, Matthews can guard anyone on the perimeter, which has allowed Middleton to conserve his energy for offense.
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The influx of veteran long-range shooters also will help in the playoffs. Matthews and Kyle Korver have been there from the start and Marvin Williams was just added Monday. They joined a cast of perimeter players that included Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo. On any given night, enough of them will have a hot hand that the Bucks should be able to space the floor and prevent opponents from ganging up on Antetokounmpo like Toronto did.
Second, Antetokounmpo is even better this season. His scoring average has gone from 27.7 to 30.0, his rebounding is up from 12.5 to 13.5 and he’s been a monster at crunch time.
More important, he has improved his 3-point shooting from 25.6% to 31.3%. That means opponents can no longer afford to back off Antetokounmpo and force him to go 1-on-3 trying to get to the rim, something Toronto did effectively in the playoffs.
Third, Middleton is still improving in his eighth NBA season. In addition to making his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance, the small forward has career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
Middleton has been particularly hot lately, starting with a 51-point game in Antetokounmpo’s absence. In his past eight games, Middleton is averaging 25.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 51.4% from the field, 50.9% from 3-point range and 94.3% from the free throw line. He might not be as good as No. 2s such as Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but he has quietly become a terrific all-around player.
Fourth, the Bucks should be well-rested. Unless coach Mike Budenholzer decides getting to 70 wins is important (it isn’t), the Bucks should be able to rest players prior to the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton are already playing fewer minutes than last year. The former is on the court for 30.9 minutes per game, which ranks 72nd in the NBA and is down from 32.8 last year. Middleton’s minutes have dropped from 31.1 to 29.6.
Finally, the defense is even better in the Bucks’ second season in Budenholzer’s system. They led the NBA with a 104.9 defensive efficiency rating last season. They lead again this season, only the rating has dropped to 101.7.
Adding Robin Lopez as the backup to twin brother Brook has made the Bucks even tougher to score on inside. They’re allowing a league-best 38.7 points per game in the paint, a drop of 3.5 points from last season. Plus, versatile defenders such as Matthews and Williams will allow Budenholzer to play small ball and match up better with opponents.
Put it all together and the Bucks are a more consistent — and therefore better — team this season. Then again, we won’t know for sure until June.
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