The Milwaukee Bucks are having a historically great regular season, but they aren’t guaranteed to win this year’s NBA championship. What might trip them up?
The Milwaukee Bucks are in the midst of a historically great regular season. At 50-8, they’re on pace to become only the third team in NBA history to win at least 70 games, and they currently own the fourth-biggest margin of victory ever.
Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are clear favorites to win this year’s championship, according to both FiveThirtyEight and betting markets. They weren’t far away from a Finals appearance last year — after all, they were one double-overtime from taking a 3-0 series lead over the eventual champion Toronto Raptors — and they’re even better this season.
However, regular-season dominance doesn’t always translate to hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Just ask the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who won an NBA-record 73 games before blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What could trip Antetokounmpo and the Bucks up in this year’s playoffs? The following three factors will be key to prevailing over them in a seven-game series.
Bomb away from deep
The Bucks have built their defensive scheme around defending the rim at all costs. They allow a league-low 23.1 attempts per game at the rim, and opponents are shooting a horrendous 52.4 percent from that area, nearly 6 percentage points worse than the next-lowest mark (the Toronto Raptors at 58.2 percent).
Since they devote so much attention to their interior defense, the Bucks are allowing opponents to shoot a league-high 38.9 3-point attempts per game. A majority of them are above-the-break 3s (30.5 per game), on which opponents are shooting 36.1 percent, the NBA’s eighth-highest mark.
Since the Bucks willingly concede shots from deep — they allow a league-high 20.3 wide-open triples per game — an opponent that can punish them with long-range bombers could prove problematic in the playoffs. They were outshot from 3-point range in six of their eight losses this season.
Fortunately for the Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets are the only Eastern Conference playoff teams that rank among the top 10 in either 3-point attempts or made 3-pointers per game. The Nets will pose no threat to the Bucks sans Kyrie Irving, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury, but the Raptors or Heat could make a series interesting if their shooters get hot.
If the Houston Rockets’ small-ball experiment propels them to an unlikely Finals berth, their outrageous 3-point volume (a league-high 44.2 attempts per game) might force the Bucks to rethink their defensive approach. Otherwise, the Lopez brothers will continue hanging around the rim and daring opponents to beat them from deep.
Try to contain Giannis with size
After averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in 32.8 minutes per game last year en route to his first MVP award, Antetokounmpo has somehow gotten better this season. In nearly two fewer minutes, he’s posting career highs in points (29.7), rebounds (13.7), free-throw attempts (10.3) and made 3-pointers (1.5), and he currently boasts the best PER in league history (31.9).
Antetokounmpo is clearly motivated by the Bucks’ playoff collapse against the Raptors last season, which is bad news for the rest of the NBA. Now that he’s become a more well-rounded scorer with an improved 3-point stroke and a reliable fadeaway jumper, it’s nigh impossible to stop him on offense.
Teams can’t just allow him to waltz to the rim carte blanche, though.
With his 6-foot-11 frame and outrageously long strides, Antetokounmpo can get from the 3-point line to the rim in the blink of an eye. Walling off the paint and forcing him to shoot jumpers is an opponent’s only chance to stop his one-man reign of terror.
Antetokounmpo’s per-game splits aren’t much different in wins (29.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 30.4 minutes) and losses (28.9 points, 14.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists in 34.0 minutes), although he plays deeper into games in the latter. Efficiency has been the biggest difference between his performances in wins versus losses this season.
In the 45 wins he’s suited up for, Antetokounmpo has shot a dazzling 56.6 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from 3-point range. In seven losses, he’s shot only 47.2 percent overall and a ghastly 11.1 percent (4-of-36) from deep.
The Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — provided both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are back by the playoffs — are perhaps the only Eastern Conference teams with the requisite size and defensive aptitude to slow Antetokounmpo down. The Greek Freak shot a season-worst 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) in the Bucks’ blowout loss to the Sixers on Christmas Day, and the Raptors held him to only 19 points on 5-of-14 shooting in their 108-97 loss to the Bucks on Tuesday. The Celtics lack a dominant big man, but they have an interchangeable series of wings they can throw at Antetokounmpo to keep him off-balance.
The Los Angeles Lakers could prove problematic in a hypothetical Finals matchup, too. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Markieff Morris, the Lakers have a plethora of bigs to throw at Antetokounmpo, although the Greek Freak dropped 34 points on 11-of-19 shooting, 11 rebounds and seven assists on them in their first matchup back on Dec. 19. They face off again next Friday in a potential Finals preview.
Win the non-Greek Freak minutes
While Antetokounmpo, two-time All-Star forward Khris Middleton and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Brook Lopez will attract most of the headlines for this year’s Bucks squad, depth is one of its greatest assets.
The Bucks are outscoring opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo off the floor, which would be the NBA’s fifth-best net rating. (They’re blasting opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with the reigning MVP on the court, which would be the best mark of any team since at least 1983-84.) They’re also allowing opponents to score only 103.7 points per 100 possessions sans Antetokounmpo, which would still put them ahead of every other team.
In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo figures to play far more than the 30.9 minutes per game he’s averaging during the regular season. That makes it imperative for opposing teams to resoundingly win the few minutes that he’s off the floor.
The Los Angeles Clippers lurk as the biggest threat in that regard. After acquiring Marcus Morris Sr. at the trade deadline and adding Reggie Jackson in the buyout market, the Clippers go a legitimate 10 deep. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can take turns attempting to harass Antetokounmpo while Morris, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell shoulder a complementary scoring load.
However, no team has the pieces to exploit all of the Bucks’ weaknesses.
The Clippers have the requisite depth, but their lack of interior size could prove fatal against the supersized Bucks. The Sixers have the size, but Simmons and Embiid are out for an undetermined period of time. The Rockets have the shooting, but their small-ball lineup has little chance against Antetokounmpo defensively. The Lakers have the size and top-end talent, but their depth leaves much to be desired. And the Celtics might get annihilated in the paint if Daniel Theis gets into foul trouble.
The Raptors have perhaps the best combination size, depth and shooting needed to topple the Bucks in a playoff series. But Leonard now in L.A., they may lack the go-to, crunch-time scorer they’d need late in a close game. (Unless Fred VanVleet gets the baby bump again, that is.)
It won’t be easy for any team to win a playoff series against a Bucks team that has yet to lose two straight games all year. The Bucks are all but certain to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and Antetokounmpo could become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal (in 2001!) to drop a 40-20 game in the postseason.
However, the 2015-16 Warriors are living proof that regular-season dominance doesn’t guarantee a championship. It may take an unlucky confluence of events to knock off the Bucks, but teams will have a pathway to thwart their title hopes.