The Milwaukee Bucks are a powerhouse — or at least that’s what it feels like after four regular-season games. It is not only that they are undefeated, but also that everything everybody hoped for when they hired coach Mike Budenholzer appears to be coming to fruition. They are top-five in offensive and defensive rating, and their new, five-out offense makes prior Bucks systems look grotesque in comparison.
As always in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the main draw. His early-season numbers don’t even make sense: He had 32 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks and two steals in a 123-108 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, and he is the first player to score 25 points and grab 15 rebounds in each of his first four games since Wilt Chamberlain did it 53 years ago.
Here’s a look at three of the factors contributing to all this, including how the Bucks’ franchise player is annihilating weak defenders:
Trust the Process
After the Bucks’ 124-113 win over the New York Knicks on Monday, Antetokounmpo had a notable exchange with The Athletic’s Eric Nehm:
Antetokounmpo’s message, essentially: Trust the process. If you miss some open 3s and the other team makes some tough 2s, do not abandon the game plan.
This is the clearest possible distillation of the fact that the Bucks believe in Budenholzer’s system. It’s easy to be secure in what you’re doing when shots are dropping; buy-in only matters when they’re not.
It is fitting, then, that Milwaukee trusted the process against Philadelphia. The Bucks started the game shooting 4-for-20 and missing their first nine 3-point attempts. On one trip down the floor, John Henson and Eric Bledsoe bricked 3s from opposite corners, with the latter hitting the side of the backboard:
Milwaukee fell behind by 14 points, but at the end of the first quarter Sixers coach Brett Brown told ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco that they got lucky with all the missed 3s. Sure enough, after missing his first four 3s, Bucks center Brook Lopez made five in a row, helping to turn the game around. Milwaukee went 8-for-15 from deep in the second quarter, outscoring Philadelphia 49-30 in the period and never relinquishing its lead.
Watching all 11 of Lopez’s 3-point attempts is instructive. He isn’t the kind of player who forces shots from long range, and he was matched up with Joel Embiid, a player who prefers to be close to the rim on defense. This means all of them were in rhythm and fairly open:
Logically, there is no reason that Lopez should have doubted himself after missing a bunch of good looks in the first quarter. He is human, though, and it’s not as if he has been shooting 3s his whole life. In fact, this was only the fourth time in his career he had attempted 10 or more 3s in a game. If he were playing in a different system, for a different coach, he might have decided it just wasn’t his night or tried to build up his confidence by taking shots closer to the basket.
Lopez knows, however, that the Bucks didn’t sign him because of his ability to score on the low block. He is on this particular team to space the floor, and his primary job on offense is to force guys like Embiid to the perimeter and open up driving lanes for his teammates. Regardless of what’s going on in any particular game, Budenholzer has made sure that his players understand the formula.
Giannis, the switch destroyer
The NBA’s scoring explosion indicates that defenses are generally helpless right now. There is no good way to guard high pick-and-rolls when the floor is spread and the ballhandler can shoot 3s off the dribble. As a result, more and more teams have elected to switch screens. Some even do this on and off the ball, every single time, even if it involves a tiny point guard and an enormous center trading assignments.
When switching works, it takes the offensive team out of rhythm and makes beautiful, free-flowing offenses — like the one Budenholzer has installed — grind to a halt. If you try this against Antetokounmpo, though, you better have an army of agile, long and heady defenders on the roster. Look at how he demolishes poor Furkan Korkmaz here:
Like LeBron James and James Harden, Antetokounmpo aggressively hunts mismatches. When he forces an advantageous switch, he is even deadlier than he used to be because of the shooters surrounding him. Against the Sixers, he got J.J. Redick on him, then drove and threw a blind, behind-the-head pass to Tony Snell for a corner 3, afterward admitting that he just guessed someone would be there:
Antetokounmpo has only played 141 minutes in the regular season, but there are already plenty of examples of him destroying switches:
Of course, Antetokounmpo doesn’t need switches — he can create easy opportunities against even the league’s best defenders. If he sees an opportunity to attack a little guy or a slowpoke, though, he will make the most of it.
In the preseason, Middleton told me he was seeing gaps he’d never seen before on offense. He also said he and Budenholzer had come to an agreement about when to take midrange shots — he knew he’d be expected to trade some tough 2s for more efficient 3s. In this respect, early returns are excellent — he is averaging 24.3 points on 50.8 percent shooting while taking 7.8 3-pointers a game and making an 58.1 percent of them.
Middleton is attempting almost exactly the same number of shots as he did last year. He has simply improved his shot selection, taking way more 3s than he ever has before. He is a threat to take an off-the-dribble 3s anytime he gets the ball on the perimeter, and he is actively trying to create those shots rather than slithering his way into the mid-range:
In the last two clips of the above video, Middleton forces a switch and gets the look he wants against Enes Kanter. Middleton had 30 points on 11-for-14 shooting against New York, and — this is where those gaps come in — with a perfectly spaced floor, he showed off his playmaking ability:
Middleton is the kind of player who can make contested shots over good defenders. If he becomes an All-Star this year, though, it will be because he doesn’t have to do much of that anymore. He has not abandoned his post game — that would be crazy — but he has tweaked his approach just the right amount. When he does his damage now, it looks so much easier than it used to.
The fact that this seven-year vet is so much more dangerous without actually adding anything of note to his game says everything about the new Bucks. Is is extremely early and there are issues — turnovers are way up, Antetokounmpo is 1-for-15 from deep and they’re not getting to the line much — but they are making us think about how they match up against Toronto, Boston or Philly in the second round, rather than whether or not they have the proper pieces to play Budenholzer’s preferred style.
Milwaukee’s third-ranked net rating is boosted by the fact it has played three of their four games at home and hasn’t faced anyone from the West yet, but that does not mean it is a fluke. From their very first preseason game, the Bucks have been playing with the calm confidence that comes with knowing exactly who you are.
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