The Milwaukee Bucks are starting to catch fire and it couldn’t be happening at a better time of the season. Though they suffered a mighty scare late against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, they were able to finish the job and continue their impressive winning run.
Milwaukee have now won all of seven of their games since the all-star break. They’ve won eight consecutive games overall dating back to their thrilling last minute winner over the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve also won 13 out of their past 14 games overall, their best run of the entire season.
With the Bucks flying high at the moment, it’s worth wondering whether what they’re showing right now is a sign of things to come in the postseason and contend in the East against the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets.
Although this question won’t truly be answered until the playoffs, what that they’re showing right now are encouraging on both ends of the floor.
Unlike last season where the Bucks overwhelmed their opponents to a massive +10.1 point differential and played the fewest clutch minutes of any team, they’ve dealt with their fair share of close games during this winning run, with a few of them coming against playoff contending teams. Though it has not always been smooth, as last night showed, they have been finding success as their results show.
The Bucks’ halfcourt offense has improved greatly, thanks to the wealth of options they have on the court and the stellar play of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo’s decision making and general late game execution has been stellar. His more varied moves when driving to the rim have kept defenders off-balance, as has his improvement in the low post. His passing has generally been spot on as well, getting his teammates open looks when defenses try to key in on him. He’s also been hitting his free throws more consistently in games, something that he’ll need to continue to do if the Bucks are going to find success in the postseason.
The Milwaukee Bucks have been fueled by more than Antetokounmpo over this win streak.
The Bucks are also showing that they have other options to go to late in games. Khris Middleton’s scoring ability, especially in isolation, and his passing ability makes him the ideal candidate to work as a primary ball handler in the clutch. Some of Milwaukee’s best offensive possessions in the clutch in recent games have come when Middleton operating as the primary ball handler while Antetokounmpo works off-the-ball at setting screens, making cuts to the rim, and posting up closer to the basket.
The team has also looked much more cohesive since Jrue Holiday’s return. The movement of both the players and the ball in their half-court possessions has been significantly improved with him in the fold. His dynamic scoring ability also holds defenses accountable in ways that Eric Bledsoe couldn’t do consistently over the past two seasons and he takes on the premier defensive assignments when the Bucks go up against quality opponents.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have aggressively changed their late game defensive scheme to focus on going small, with Antetokounmpo playing as a five, and switching everything on defense. Holiday’s return, in particular, has allowed them to execute this system well. These small ball lineups have kept teams in check, especially from three, which makes it harder for teams to blitz their way back into games.
When the team deviated from this approach on Wednesday by playing Brook Lopez in clutch time, we saw the drawbacks of doing so. The Celtics targeted him time after time in pick-and-rolls and he simply lacked the speed necessary to switch effectively when he needed to. This story played itself out time and again in the playoffs over the last two seasons, so Wednesday should work as a final reminder to coach Mike Budenholzer to only use Lopez very selectively in late-game situations dependent on matchups. The recent addition of P.J. Tucker will help with that as he gets up to speed.
For all of these reasons, getting the top seed in the East must be priority number one over the remainder of the regular season. Failure to do so would virtually guarantee that the Bucks would have go through Brooklyn and Philadelphia just to get to the NBA Finals. Even if some of the injuries to key players on those teams could make that path a bit easier, Milwaukee should do their best to avoid this extremely difficult path.
While there is plenty of games left to be played, the Bucks are showing right now that they are capable of making a push to make it out of the East and reach the NBA Finals this season. Now it’s on them to continue that upward trajectory.