The Milwaukee Bucks entered this season as a trendy pick to make a jump.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and The Others—headlined by perennially underrated Khris Middleton and new signee Brook Lopez—were natural complements. It was up to new head coach, Mike Budenholzer, to bring order to a talented-but-underwhelming roster. That bet seemed safe enough.
I’m just not sure anyone expected this.
The Bucks aren’t just good, they’re the NBA’s best team. They boast the league’s best record (43-14), rank top-five in offensive and defensive rating, and have title-level net-rating (plus-9.6). There’s potential for them to get even better: Recent acquisition of Nikola Mirotic makes them harder to defend (once he’s healthy and suiting up).
It’s taken over 40 years, but the Bucks are serious contenders again. Unfortunately for them, there are at least three other teams making that claim in the East.
The Toronto Raptors (43-16), Boston Celtics (37-21) and Philadelphia Sixers (37-21) have multiple stars and good-to-great coaches. (The Indiana Pacers (38-20) would be in the mix if not for Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury.)
All three pose slightly different problems for the Bucks and should be feared on varying levels. Let’s take a look at where each team stands in a potential matchup.
Season Series: 3-1, Bucks
milwaukee’s best: Defending Kyle lowry
Among the three challengers, the Raptors have been the most consistent this season. Coincidentally, they’re also the team that has struggled the most against Milwaukee.
You can attribute that to the struggles of Kyle Lowry. He may not be Toronto’s best player, but he’s their important one. As the head of the snake, he sets the tone as a middle-penetrator and pull-up shooter. His ability to get busy in pick-and-roll puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on defenses and opens up the floor for everyone else. His sense of spacing and constant movement bends defenses in the same way.
The Bucks are uniquely equipped to limit that kind of pressure.
Eric Bledsoe has returned to his roots as a near-elite defender. Whether you attribute that to the Budenholzer Effect or his current contract status is your prerogative. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Lowry has gone scoreless in the 122 possessions he’s been defended by Bledsoe this season.
Even when Bledsoe isn’t on the floor, the Bucks have two more solid point guard defenders in Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill. They aren’t the hounds Bledsoe is when engaged, but they have the strength and length to make Lowry uncomfortable.
What to Watch for:
- There may be some regression coming in terms of three-point shooting. Kawhi Leonard (30.0 percent), Lowry (5.0 percent), and Serge Ibaka (29.2 percent) all shot well below their average in their season series. The Bucks have already had stretches this season where they’ve given up a more-than-ideal amount of open triples, so it might not take long for Toronto’s shooters to find some sort of rhythm.
- The Marc Gasol addition could be huge for Toronto. Jonas Valanciunas didn’t play much in the season series. Swapping him out for Gasol adds a dimension offensively and more of a presence at the rim defensively. The at-the-rim numbers for Gasol haven’t been great, but having Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard and Pascal Siakam flanking him should make his job easier.
Season Series: 1-0, Bucks
milwaukee’s best: Spacing
It’s hard to take much from their lone meeting so far this season. Heck, five of the 11 players that logged minutes for the Sixers in that game are now on different teams. Nonetheless, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will make this matchup infinitely more interesting.
One thing that should remain an advantage for the Bucks? The Lopez-Joel Embiid matchup. That sounds ludicrous considering the gap in talent, but much like boxing, matchups are a battle of styles.
Embiid is a fearsome rim protector, but he’s more unsure of himself when he has to defend stretch bigs. The Sixers run a “drop” scheme in pick-and-roll to suit his skills. That coverage, however, is inherently flawed against spacers at the 5.
Lopez lit the Sixers up for 21 points in their meeting earlier this season. He shot 5-of-11 from three, with all five of his makes coming over the outstretched arms of a recovering Embiid. The Bucks did a tremendous job of running action to get guys downhill, forcing Embiid to help. From there, the kick-out to Lopez put the Sixers in a bind.
Embiid still finished with 30 points but shot uncharacteristically bad from the field (9-of-24, 2-of-7 from three). He lived at the line (10-of-13), which could be an issue. Overall, Lopez is more equipped to deal with Embiid post-ups than Embiid is to chase Lopez around the three-point line. That gravity from Lopez can help open up driving lanes for the other Bucks.
What to Watch for:
- Who guards Giannis? Butler is Philly’s best defender, though Ben Simmons fits the size description better. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a ton of cross-matching, including some Embiid-on-Giannis minutes so a guy like Harris could chase Lopez around the perimeter.
- There’s time to hit up the buyout market, but the Sixers still feel a shooter short. It’ll be interesting to see just how aggressively the Bucks try to close off the paint and dare Philly to launch if they haven’t remedied this problem by playoff time.
Season Series: 1-1
Milwaukee’s best: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Raptors have Kawhi. The Sixers have Butler. The Celtics have … Jaylen Brown? Marcus Morris?
That probably sounds more shady than intended—Brown is a darn good defender in his own right and Morris has been fantastic for Boston—but there are just levels here.
Giannis has casually slapped up a 32-10-4 line through two matchups while shooting 60 percent from the field. The “let X beat you and shut down the others” strategy isn’t anything new, but it feels like Giannis has ascended to the point where that isn’t the best idea.
Giannis will see a bevy of bodies: Brown, Morris, Marcus Smart and even Al Horford. He should win each of those matchups. And if the Celtics get to the point where they have to send extra attention, the Bucks’ shooters should be in a position to feast.
What to Watch for:
- Horford can turn the tide of this series. He’s strong enough to jostle with Lopez and mobile enough to hedge or switch pick-and-roll action involving Mirotic when he’s in. On the other end, Horford can break things open with his combination of shooting, playmaking and post-scoring. He’s a “drop” coverage breaker like Lopez is, but with much better ball skills. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics’ lone win against the Bucks came with Horford leading the charge (18-5-8, plus-11).
- It’s been an uneven season for Terry Rozier overall, but he’s been awful against the Bucks. 6-4-4 with a 22-13-100 shooting split looks like an accident. If he can’t get going, I’m not sure how long the Celtics can afford to sit Kyrie Irving much at all.
- Gordon Hayward could also be huge in this series. At his best, he’s a Swiss Army Knife offensively that can carry the load in spurts to take pressure off of Irving. He’s a credible defender—potentially a guy that can at least make life tough for Middleton when they’re matched up with one another. Hayward hasn’t shot well against the Bucks either (38/36/88 shooting split), but a surge from him could go a long way.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.