On May 19th of 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks entered Canadian territory to face the Toronto Raptors for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks held a 2-0 series lead after a pair of relatively comfortable wins at home. Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks controlled the paint just as they did throughout their stellar regular season.
After losing Game 3 in double overtime, and missing a chance to all but clinch the series, it all fell apart for the Bucks. The Raptors took the next three games to win the series and went on to win the championship.
A year later, the Bucks have put together an absurdly dominant regular season. Despite this dominance, skepticism lingers as that four-game collapse is still fresh in many fans’ minds.
Teams without championship pedigree that come off four straight playoff losses will always garner doubt the following season, no matter their regular season play. The Bucks have tested that sentiment to its absolute limits with this campaign, boasting a robust net rating of 10.7.
Further impressively, the Bucks led the league in net rating by 3.6 points and this puts them in rare company. The only two teams in modern NBA history with a larger lead on the field were the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Both were crowned champions after cruising through the playoffs.
Moreover, both of those teams had been through the gauntlet before. The Bulls featured the greatest player ever and had won three championships with the same key pieces; while the Warriors won a title in 2015, won 73 games in 2016 and then added Kevin Durant for their 2016-17 stroll to the finals.
Two other teams that come to mind when looking for comparisons are the 2014-15 Warriors and the 2008-09 Cavaliers. These units also featured league MVPs and led the league comfortably in net rating, although not quite as comfortably as the Bucks this season.
The Warriors capped off their season with a championship, but they did feature a new coach in Steve Kerr that season – so it wasn’t the same team returning from playoff failure. The Cavaliers were coming off a semi-finals loss in 2008 to the eventual champion Boston Celtics, but they did benefit from a Kevin Garnett injury and a very weak conference en route to 66 wins. That team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
It’s safe to say the Bucks are in unchartered territory. The big question from here is this: Does this dominance supersede the lack of past success when trying to predict the future? The 2018-19 Bucks were a great regular season team in their own right, but has there been enough discernible change to say that this group will fare better in the postseason? To put it simply: Will the Bucks dominate the post-season as those great Bulls and Warriors teams did, or will they fail to get over the hump like the Cavaliers?
The first question is a little more abstract, so the second will kick things off. The Bucks are quite obviously a bettered regular-season team for a myriad of reasons.
Internal improvement has been at the forefront for the Bucks this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has somehow found another gear from last season, taking a leap reminiscent of Stephen Curry’s in 2015-16 when he followed an MVP season with one of the best of offensive seasons ever.
But Antetokounmpo’s leap has been mostly seen defensively. He has become a snarling monster on that end, shutting off entire sides of the court on a nightly basis. When Giannis plays, the Bucks hold opponents to a ridiculous 51.7 percent shooting at the rim, compared to a still-low-but-not-terrifying 58.9 percent shooting in that area when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. He is the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason and will likely be the third player ever to win that and the MVP in the same season.
Starting center Brook Lopez has been no slouch on that end either. His consistent rim protection has thrust the veteran into the defensive awards conversation and deservedly so.
Elsewhere, Khris Middleton has had his best season as a professional, which is almost hard to believe. The uber-efficient shooting and smooth wing play from Middleton beautifully complimented the bulldozing style of Giannis throughout the season. Donte DiVincenzo has become a nice 3-and-D player in his second year while also flashing ball-handling ability. Eric Bledsoe and George Hill have each had stellar campaigns and more than made up for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon.
The new faces have proven to be smart additions as well. Kyle Korver has provided his usual 40 percent three-point shooting. Wesley Matthews has started every game thanks to his veteran defense and consistent stroke. Marvin Williams, acquired midseason, gives the Bucks another consummate professional on the wing.
However, the most important new teammate has been the other half of the Lopez set. Robin Lopez has helped shore up the defense of a bench unit that struggled a tad when both Antetokounmpo and his brother sat in 2018-19.
Looking past the statistics, the Bucks seem to play with a different edge this season. NBA players are known for being online; the playoff loss and subsequent doubting from fans and media did not fall on deaf ears. It’s rare that a team this good still has something prove.
With these improvements in mind, the question of whether this regular season or last year’s postseason should be key when evaluating the Bucks can be revisited.
The four postseason losses did highlight one weakness and the Bucks’ defensive trade of opponent three-point attempts in exchange for a closed paint often left them susceptible to streaky shooting. The Bucks were willing to allow threes from the Raptors role players, and in the end, it was their demise. Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell drained dagger after dagger.
Of their 12 losses this season, eight came when the opposition hit 16 or more threes. For reference, the Houston Rockets lead the league with 15 made threes per game. Three additional losses came while playing without Giannis. Their only full-strength loss to a team that shot below their average from deep came at the hands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bucks have stuck to their guns on defense and rightly so. Their defense has been historically good this season. Sure, they can be beaten by a barrage of three-pointers, but those are few and far between and could happen to any team. Just because one team got hot for three straight games should not dissuade a team from their bread and butter.
It would, of course, be unfair to the Raptors to chalk up a series win to a statistical anomaly. They locked down on defense as well, keeping the Bucks out of the paint and their stars in check.
This season, Giannis has quietly improved his three-point shooting. He has taken about a quarter of his total shots from deep, up from a sixth last season. He has hit about 30 percent of those attempts compared to about 25 percent a season ago. Teams are sure to take a page from the Raptors’ playbook this postseason, so his continued willingness to shoot will be key in the Bucks’ quest for a championship.
The other, and perhaps most concerning and hard-to-predict cause for the Bucks 2019 downfall, is the decline of the role players in that series. Bledsoe’s shooting fell off a cliff as he furthered his reputation as a postseason underperformer. Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, two players no longer on this roster, also suffered through ugly shooting slumps.
Some of that is expected: Role players tend to regress as defenses tighten and scouting becomes more detailed. Players like Bledsoe, Matthews, Williams and Korver will need to maintain some semblance of their regular season shooting prowess to keep the Bucks offense humming.
While the Raptors did unveil a few weaknesses, the Bucks addressed the most glaring ones by simply continuing to assemble talent on the fringes. Rather than make large-scale adjustments and overcompensate for playoff heartbreak, the Bucks doubled-down on their approach to become the dominant team they are today.
All of this is further complicated by the current situation. For any aliens reading human literature for the first time, the NBA is currently playing the remainder of their season in a bubble in Walt Disney World due to a global pandemic. This bubble scenario renders the homecourt advantage earned by the Bucks null, as there are no more home and road games for now. Also, it is still unknown how a four-month midseason layoff will affect the players.
In normal times, the Bucks should be considered a heavy favorite. They more closely resemble teams that rampaged through the playoffs than they do teams that fell short. Times are not normal though, so it would be unwise to make any bold predictions.
To answer the third and final question – it’s true, the Bucks seem to resemble those great Bulls and Warriors teams more than they do the 2009 Cavaliers. Whether it will play out that way remains to be seen.
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