The Long Two: The Milwaukee Bucks are coming together at the right time

Milwaukee Bucks, NBA

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An improved offense and malleable defense suggest the Milwaukee Bucks’ best play is yet to come, and that the defending champs might still be the best team in basketball.

The case for the Milwaukee Bucks as NBA title favorites isn’t built on a historically dominant season or a rampant surge through the standings, but rather on the sure foundation of a team that knows exactly who it is and has spent a season coalescing into the best version of itself.

Like Miami, the Bucks haven’t rattled off the same hot streaks that have propelled teams like Phoenix, Golden State and Boston into the championship conversation, nor does Milwaukee’s statistical resume — 45-27, third in the East, with the seventh-best net rating in the NBA — suggest this is some playoff juggernaut. Yet an improved offense and malleable defense provide reason to believe that the Bucks’ best play still lies ahead of them, and that after a season of change to the NBA landscape, the defending champs might still be the best team in basketball.

Even during their 2021 title run, the Bucks’ offense often felt like a collection of disparate parts rather than a connected organism. Milwaukee could punish defenses with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s downhill assaults, Khris Middleton’s smooth mid-range game or Jrue Holiday’s bruising drives, but it struggled to blend all of those threats into a balanced attack. This season, those parts have flowed together more smoothly, and the Bucks have been one of the league’s best offenses as a result. They rank fourth in offensive rating and, critically, fourth in halfcourt efficiency — a key indicator for how well a team’s offense might translate in a more grinding playoff environment.

The Milwaukee Bucks have never been better on offense

Despite generating fewer points in transition and taking fewer shots at the rim, Milwaukee’s offense still stems from the immense pressure Antetokounmpo puts on the rim, which has made the Bucks arguably the most lethal 3-point shooting team in the NBA. Five players in Mike Budenholzer’s rotation shoot at least 38 percent from deep, and of the four teams hitting a better percentage from 3 than Milwaukee, none take a higher share of their shots from that distance.

That’s the product of Antetokounmpo’s individual greatness, but also of the team’s improved ball movement and fluidity. The Bucks still aren’t an elite passing team, but better movement and quicker decision-making have reduced some of the friction that once bogged down their offense. Giannis, Middleton and Holiday are all adept at reading defenses and finding teammates, and Milwaukee’s role players assertively ping the ball around the floor until it finds an open shooter. Where the Bucks once tended to stall out if an initial action didn’t work, they can now pivot from one sequence to the next in a more improvisational and movement-heavy system:

That increased connection comes from Milwaukee’s stars getting more reps together, but also from each player’s individual development. Somehow, Antetokounmpo took another step forward this season while serving as the fulcrum of everything the Bucks do on both ends of the floor. As he did in last year’s NBA Finals, Giannis has played less as an initiator this season and more as a play finisher who can catch the ball with an advantage and make strong moves against overmatched defenders.

In addition to being a devastating finisher off the dribble, Antetokounmpo is one of the best roll men in the NBA, and the Bucks have used him more often in that capacity. He’s also leveled up as a passer, finding teammates with more creative and accurate deliveries than ever before, while improving at the foul line and adding new wrinkles to his scoring arsenal:

That leaves the rest of the league without a real antidote for Giannis, who eventually conquered every defender, scheme or gimmick thrown his way in last year’s playoffs. Miami had no answers for him last season, while this year’s Nets aren’t remotely equipped to slow him down. Toronto and Cleveland theoretically have the bodies to throw at Giannis, but lack the firepower to outlast the Bucks in a series. Boston and Philadelphia have provided at least some resistance in past years, but this upgraded version of Giannis presents a different challenge altogether.

Holiday, meanwhile, is playing at an All-NBA level while sliding seamlessly between the various offensive roles he’s asked to play. He’s hitting 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s and 41 percent of his pull-ups, and his ability to get downhill off the dribble is a crucial part of Milwaukee’s halfcourt attack. He still isn’t an elite distributor, but Holiday applies enough pressure with his passing that defenses must account for both his scoring and playmaking.

Middleton takes some of the playmaking pressure off of Holiday, though the bulk of his utility is in his undeniability as a scorer. He isn’t quite a Durant or DeRozan-level mid-range shooter, but he’s as good as any other wing in basketball at working to his preferred spots and sinking contested shots, and Milwaukee has enough offensive weapons that it doesn’t need to rely on Middleton to the degree other teams with mid-range assassins do.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been winning with almost any combination of stars

Perhaps the most encouraging data point for the Bucks going into the playoffs is how effective they’ve been with different combinations of their stars on the floor. With the exception of Middleton working as the lone star, Milwaukee has outscored its opponents by at least 4.5 points per 100 possessions with one or more of their three catalysts on the floor, and absolutely demolished teams when the three play together:

Those numbers won’t be quite as lopsided in the playoffs, where the competition strengthens and opponents play their best units more minutes, but they do indicate that Budenholzer should be able to stagger his stars without much dropoff when Antetokounmpo rests. Even if other teams can hang with the Bucks’ starters, few have the depth required to keep pace for 48 minutes.

Statistically, Milwaukee’s defense hasn’t been the same force it was in past seasons. Despite allowing the third-fewest shots in the NBA within six feet of the rim, the Bucks rank 13th in defensive rating and just 16th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim — a steep decline from the last three seasons. Much of that is a product of Brook Lopez’s extended absence, which left the Bucks playing Antetokounmpo primarily at center without a reliable backup for nearly the entire season. They’ve still been an elite rim-protecting team with Giannis on the floor, but none of their other centers have provided much support on the second unit.

One tradeoff of that slippage at the rim, however, is that it has yielded a more diverse defensive approach. Losing Lopez in the paint has created more room in the rotation for wings, and the Bucks can get away with playing smaller lineups for extended minutes because of how well Antetokounmpo maintains their defensive integrity on the backline.

Lineups with Giannis at center have allowed under 107 points per 100 possessions this season while holding opponents to just 60 percent shooting at the rim, and his ability to cover the entire court while staying in position to protect the rim allows Milwaukee to run virtually any defensive scheme. The choice between switching, dropping, hedging or any other coverage isn’t a matter of personnel, but simply how Budenholzer chooses to deploy Antetokounmpo on a given possession. It’s possible that each round of the playoffs could require the Bucks to play a different defensive style, and they are (at least theoretically) prepared to do that kind of shapeshifting.

That said, Budenholzer has stubbornly clung to his preferred methods in the past, and the Bucks’ proclivity for keeping their big men in the paint could still bite them against pick-and-pop centers — particularly with Lopez on the floor. The Bucks allow the most 3-pointers in the NBA (they’ve been in the top five all four years of Budenholzer’s tenure), and while that math tends to work out over the course of 82 games, it leaves them more vulnerable to shooting variance in shorter playoff stints.

There’s also the question of how Lopez fits into Milwaukee’s postseason plans; an encouraging first week back suggests he could provide solid rim protection and a big body to wrestle with Joel Embiid in the event that Milwaukee faces the 76ers in a series. Even if he loses value late in the postseason, he’ll at least spare Antetokounmpo the physical toll of playing center full-time. The Bucks also lack a true stopper to throw at superstar wings, though their biggest threats in the East don’t have any of those giant perimeter scorers who might give them trouble.

The outcome of this year’s playoffs might depend more on matchups than anything else, particularly in the Eastern Conference. The right path could see a team through to the Finals, while an unfavorable matchup could lead to a first-round exit. There is no perfect team, no overwhelming favorite. In that case, the safest bet might be the team that has most recently proven itself in the playoff gauntlet and shown no signs of weakness against the rest of the competition.

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