After the doomsday scenario happened in the NBA Finals last season, the Golden State Warriors era has taken a year off.
This was supposed to be a year where there wasn’t one team dominating the rest of the league. Someone forgot to mention that to Jon Horst and the fine folks in Milwaukee.
The Bucks head into Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Indians Pacers with a 52-9 record, which is easily the best in the league. They rank first in the entire NBA in scoring, pace, defensive rating, scoring differential and inside the top three in opponent scoring and offensive rating. That is a serious recipe for success.
While the main ingredient is Giannis Antetokounmpo, this team is about so much more than one player. The reigning MVP has been even better this season and could take home the award again. That is not the trophy that motivates him, though. The trophy he wants is the Larry O’Brien, which embodies the team’s success.
As currently constructed, this group is nearly identical to last year’s team, which also saw great regular-season success, but faltered in the playoffs. The chemistry and continuity amongst the players have been building, and so too has the relationship between player and coach. Mike Budenholzer is still only in his second year with the team and has been learning more about the players and their tendencies. That has allowed him to put them in a better position to succeed this year.
One player that made a major impact last season was Brook Lopez. The 7-foot center was an assassin from three-point range a year ago, making 2.3 of them per game. This season has been somewhat of a different story for the veteran. Lopez is hitting just 1.4 threes per game, which is the lowest of his career. His attempts are down, but so is his accuracy.
Last season, Lopez shot 36.5 percent from downtown, but so far this year that has dipped to 29.2 percent. That is the lowest percentage since his 2015-16 campaign. His effective field goal percentage sits at 49.5 percent, which is the lowest mark he’s posted since the 2010-11 season. All of that has resulted in a 10.9 scoring average for Lopez, which is the lowest of his career.
But while the scoring and shooting efficiency may be down, everything else has been exceptional.
Lopez is currently averaging 2.5 blocks per game, which is second in the league only behind Hassan Whiteside. His rebounding, assists and steals have been steady and his turnovers have remained low. The Bucks hang their hat on rim protection, and that is where Lopez has been invaluable as they rank second in the league in blocked shots as a team.
The key to Milwaukee’s defense is taking away the highest percentage shots, which are in the paint. They will drop the big man instead of switching, which allows the opposing team to launch threes. They protect the paint at all costs, with long and athletic bodies like Giannis, Khris Middleton and the Lopez twins.
Even without Lopez knocking down the long ball consistently, the Bucks rank inside the top five in three-point shots made and second in team field goal percentage. Having snipers like Middleton, Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo and Kyle Korver is great. George Hill currently leads the league in three-point shooting. Newly acquired Marvin Williams has been a fantastic fit, and Eric Bledsoe has been shooting above 35 percent from deep for the first time since his 2015-16 season.
The fact is that Milwaukee has plenty of shooting to overcome the slump that Brook has been in this year. While that was a large aspect of his game last season, he has a lot more value that has been overlooked because of his three-point shooting.
The interesting angle of the rest of the regular season is that the Bucks have the fourth-easiest schedule remaining. They went 11-1 in February, and that lone loss came in Indiana when Giannis didn’t play. They will get the Pacers’ rematch tonight at home, and they will be angry. The Bucks were dreadful on the second night of a back-to-back in Miami on Monday. Giannis and Middleton combined to shoot 10-for-34 from the floor, including just 2-for-14 from downtown. Even after that hiccup, Milwaukee has still only lost four games since Christmas.
Entering Monday night, the Bucks had the best point differential in NBA history. Basketball-Reference uses a Simple Rating Score which measures point differential and schedule strength. Only four teams have ever had an SRS above 11, and all of them ended up winning the championship. Milwaukee was at 11.53 before the Miami game, but is still above that magic number (11.12) heading into this evening.
Through 61 games this season, the Bucks have only played a total of 50 “clutch” minutes. According to NBA.com, the lowest amount of such minutes played over the course of an 82-game season is 95 minutes, held by the 2014-15 Warriors.
Milwaukee has been destroying teams at an incredible rate, which allows Budenholzer to manage the workload for Giannis. He is averaging just 30.9 minutes per game, which is the lowest since his rookie season.
Keeping Giannis somewhat rested is going to be paramount to their success in the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors took a similar approach last season with Kawhi Leonard, but they used a different method. Kawhi would sit out more games, but he played a lot of minutes during the games he did play. Milwaukee is hoping that this method bears the same fruit for their organization this year.
The Bucks have a showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. The matchup between the top teams in each conference is undoubtedly a potential Finals preview. The player and positional matchups are oozing with intrigue. While Budenholzer is more resistant to altering his lineup in reaction to the opponent, Frank Vogel is quite the opposite. Both teams have a lot of depth, but the Lakers still haven’t been able to find their perfect rotation.
This is the type of situation that Lopez should thrive in. Being able to pull the LA’s big men away from the rim on defense will open up things for Giannis and Middleton. The Lakers are all too familiar with his shooting capabilities and should at least have someone ready to rotate over should he be open.
In their earlier matchup this season just before Christmas, the Bucks prevailed with a seven-point victory. Anthony Davis had a monster game with 36 points and LeBron James posted a triple-double but it wasn’t enough to offset the 34-11-7 performance from Giannis. In that game, Lopez scored 10 points and was 0-for-3 from three-point range. He also had 4 steals and 3 blocks, proving that he and the Bucks can succeed even without his deep ball.
The other thing to think about is how good the Bucks have been without Lopez hitting those shots. What happens when those shots start falling?
There simply may not be an answer – or any hope – for the opponent.