Don’t look now, but the Milwaukee Bucks are about to take ownership of the Eastern Conference.
As hot as the Boston Celtics have been to start the year, Milwaukee owns the best record in the conference at 13-3 heading into the Sunday slate. Following Thursday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Bucks find themselves amidst one of the easiest stretches of the entire season; in the 16 games between now and their Christmas Day matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bucks are expected to face just four teams with a winning record.
Forecasting further into the year, after one of the toughest schedules of the NBA’s opening month, the Bucks have the easiest remaining schedule in the entire league.
It goes without saying, but that’s pretty good for Milwaukee. They’ve won seven straight, while they’ve averaged just under 120 points per game in that span. Their offense has already shifted into high gear, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement on either side of the ball.
Even with their success, it’s important to keep in mind that the Bucks have done this without their second-best player, Khris Middleton. The former second round pick has been sidelined while nursing the left thigh contusion and is expected to miss more time. On the season, the All-Star was averaging 19 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.
Of course, reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo has done the heavy lifting in his absence, as he leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and ranks 2nd in blocks. In fact, Antetokounmpo has put up better numbers than his MVP campaign — a scary thought for the rest of the league. In November alone, Antentokounmpo has averaged 32.4 points, 14.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
Antetokounmpo has also continued to push himself; he doesn’t settle for anything and has always looked for ways to improve his game. Perhaps his biggest flaw was his outside shot, but Antetokounmpo has made a concerted effort to get better in that area as he’s averaged nearly two more threes per game this season.
The three-point shot was the Bucks’ postseason Achilles heel, and Antentokounpo isn’t about to let that happen again. He may never prove Klay Thompson or JJ Redick from beyond the arc, but even an average percentage and the threat of the outside shot could change everything for him and the Bucks.
Beyond the Greek Freak, the Bucks have placed a heavy burden on their depth to keep the train rolling with Middleton sidelined. And they’ve responded on multiple fronts.
Eric Bledsoe has scored at least 28 points two of the last three games while he’s shot 47.1 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three. George Hill and Brook Lopez have remained consistent on both ends of the floor, while Wesley Matthews has shot the ball well and has played true to form as an excellent wing defender. Sterling Brown has seen a significant uptick in production, a welcome uptick in the frontcourt without Middleton, while Robin Lopez seems to be settling into his role, too.
Arguably the biggest increase in production has come from the Bucks’ pair of young guards, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton. DiVincenzo has averaged 12.4 points per game over the team’s last five and Connaughton, while he has averaged a less impressive 6.4 in that same span, erupted for 18 on Thursday and has been a constant presence on the defensive end of the court.
A different guy has seemingly stepped up every single night. And now, with 12 of their next 16 games in front of their home crowd, the Bucks have a real opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the East over these next few weeks.
Entering Sunday, the Bucks are second in the NBA in scoring while the lead the league in rebounding. They’re top five in terms of field goals made, three-pointers made, and blocks. They’ve accomplished all of this while also locking down their opponent with the third-best defensive rating in the league.
And, again, all of this is happening without their second-best player on the floor.
The assist numbers are not where you might expect (13th in the league), but they’ve made their passes count; 56 percent of Antetokounmpo’s assists have resulted in a made three-pointer by his teammates. Surrounding him with capable shooters has proven vital to Milwaukee’s top-ranked three-point shooting.
Of course, Mike Budenholzer will need to keep them motivated over the course of these next few weeks. The competition may prove soft, and they are games the Bucks should win, but they are games Milwaukee needs to win if they expect to maintain their spot atop the Eastern Conference and nab homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
That said, the Bucks are more than capable, and could see a major production bump with the return of Middleton.
So, while the 76ers were the talk of the conference over the summer, the Celtics their most recent darling behind a hot start, keep on the lookout for Milwaukee, who, behind Antetokounmpo, could prove the best team in the conference and the East’s eventual representative in the NBA Finals.
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