Before falling to the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks on Monday, the Milwaukee Bucks won 18 games in a row. And they didn’t just win – they won big, with an average margin of victory of 15.4 points per win. Despite being without Luka, the loss to Dallas wasn’t a bad one – Giannis Antetokounmpo had 48, and it’s hard to have a “bad” loss after an 18-game winning streak.
The streak brought the Bucks to 24-4, tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the best record in the NBA — no other team has fewer than seven losses.
The Bucks have flattened opponents. Even still, has there ever been a 24-4 team with more pressure to continue dominating?
Their recipe for success is the same as it was last year – great offense, great defense and a lot of Giannis. Milwaukee is second in field goal percentage on the third-most three-pointers made and attempted per game. They are fifth in free throw attempts, first in rebounding and first in points per game at 121. It’s nearly impossible to not have success with those kinds of numbers.
Giannis is having another monster season, even more impressive than his MVP one of last year. He’s averaging 31.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game on 56.4 percent from the field. Even more importantly, he’s hitting 32.1 percent of threes on over five attempts per game. That’s huge for opening up his already-unguardable game. If he gets that number up to around league-average, there won’t be a player in the league that can stop him.
All of this notwithstanding, the problems that plagued Milwaukee and led to the four straight losses that ended their season last year still exist.
Outside of Giannis, Milwaukee has only two double-digit scorers: Khris Middleton, who has admittedly stepped up his game from last year, and Eric Bledsoe. Middleton has increased his field goal percentage by five points and his three-point percentage by over three. That consistency and efficiency is all-important to Milwaukee’s postseason dreams, as he’s really the only other player the Bucks can count on. As such, it’s imperative Middleton sustains this level of play for the rest of the season.
Bledsoe, as always, is an interesting case. He was a borderline All-Star last year and was one of the best defensive guards in the Eastern Conference. He famously flamed out in the playoffs, however, shooting 41.1 percent from the field, 23.6 from three and being almost unplayable at times. He’s only made two playoff appearances as a full-time player (the last two seasons with Milwaukee) and has underperformed in both. Worse, he looks timid – and when one of your only three playmakers is lost, you can’t win in May.
Their problems from last year are still prevalent because Milwaukee arguably got a little worse — they lost Malcolm Brogdon, who is now balling out with the Indiana Pacers. Brogdon was a key cog in their machine last year, a vital ballhandler and spot-up shooter. They’ve replaced his minutes with an amalgamation of Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown. DiVincenzo and Brown are young and have yet to make a playoff mark; Matthews has loads of playoff experience, but his play has fallen off in recent years and he will never be a primary playmaker.
The rest of the roster, with old faces and new — the new being Kyle Korver and Robin Lopez — are role players, guys who are comfortable with their place on the totem pole, but players who likely won’t be able to give more than expected. George Hill was excellent in this past postseason — he upped his Bucks’ regular-season numbers of 6.8/2.6/2.1 on 42.8 percent from the field and 28 percent from three to 11.5/3.5/2.8 on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 from three — but can that really be expected again, especially in his age-33 season? Our bet is no.
All of this really means one thing: The buck stops with Giannis. That seems obvious, and maybe it is. But the elephant in the room grows bigger by the day: The MVP will be offered the Supermax this summer. If Milwaukee falters again, even if it’s in the Finals, Giannis appears likely to reject it and eventually become a free agent in the summer of 2021. The bidding wars would be at an all-time high.
Giannis remaining a Buck likely relies largely on their postseason performance this season. Losing in the same way as last year, or worse, in a poorer way than last year, could be the first domino in Giannis’ departure. Accordingly, Milwaukee has to perform…and the bad thing is, the team has the same particular issues as last year, regardless of their ridiculous start.
The Bucks have been feeling the pressure for a while, and it will continue to mount. They will likely be buyers in the trade market over the next few months, looking for another established, dependable player to fill in around Giannis.
But the same Bucks who dropped four in a row to miss out on a winnable Finals matchup are the same as the Bucks who take the floor against LeBron at 24-4 tonight. No matter how well they play, Giannis’ future in Milwaukee rides on his ability to carry this team in the playoffs this season.
Because just like this past spring, the rest of the roster won’t be enough unless he does.
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