On Friday night in Minneapolis, after just one half of basketball, the Bucks led the Timberwolves by 25 points.
It’s not common to see such a wide margin by halftime, especially with the home team down, but it makes sense considering each team’s circumstances. The Timberwolves are going through Jimmy Butler drama and haven’t looked like last year’s 47-win squad. They currently sit at 3-4 with their Western Conference playoff hopes in shambles.
The Bucks don’t look the same either. They’ve always been well-equipped with an MVP candidate, a potential All-Star and a litter of other supporting pieces, but this version of the Bucks is more fully realized than any we’ve seen before.
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In the past, Milwaukee has generally run everything through the aforementioned MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, with moderate success. A year ago, the Bucks finished with a record of 44-38, good enough for seventh in the East. Antetokounmpo continued his crazy ascension, but did so with a 30.6 usage rate, not far behind the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Unselfish as he is with a talented secondary scorer in Khris Middleton by his side, the team generally played at the beat of Giannis’ drum.
This year, Antetokounmpo actually has his usage rate up over 35, but he didn’t add to that halfway through Milwaukee’s onslaught in Minneapolis. He was only 1-of-5 from the field for five points with a couple assists to his name, but not much else.
The Bucks went on to win by 30 points, and Antetokounmpo got his numbers, but that’s not the point here. What matters is that the Bucks look like a team that’s taken the next step, and that’s happening because they — Giannis and the collective — are playing a new brand of basketball. It’s working.
After Monday night’s win over the Raptors, the Bucks now sit at a perfect 7-0. They top the league in net rating (small sample size alert!) and have the league’s second-best defensive rating after spending last season in the bottom half of the league. Antetokounmpo is a big part of this, but it’s much more than that.
Last year, the Bucks spent more time getting blocks and steals, landing in the top five in both categories. This year, they’re defending at the point of attack and closing down the lane.
In addition, they’re crashing the boards to close out possessions. Milwaukee is currently eighth in defensive rebounding percentage after spending the last five years in the bottom five.
A year ago, the Bucks played offense through their star — generally an inside-out effort. They were among the top 10 in shots taken in the restricted area in 2017-18, per NBA.com. That number by itself is a solid figure, but what killed them offensively was their propensity to shoot from midrange — and their refusal to turn those long jumpers into 3-pointers. They finished 12th last season in midrange attempts and near the bottom 10 in 3-point attempts.
Under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, this has all flipped. The Bucks are still taking lots of close shots, but their tendency to shoot from deep has risen dramatically. They’re shooting the most corner 3s in the league and have gone from 29th to second in above-the-break 3-point attempts per game, according to NBA.com. They didn’t lose their ability to produce in the restricted area, but the Bucks have all but eliminated their midrange shooting arsenal with the second-fewest attempts in the league.
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Budenholzer preached similar offensive philosophies and got similar output in Atlanta, albeit with worse win-loss results in the latter years. But even in Budenholzer’s best year — the 2014-15 Hawks went 60-22, capturing the No. 1 seed in the East — he didn’t have a player of Antetokounmpo’s moxie to work through.
On top of all that, Middleton is putting up All-Star numbers on his own (20.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game). He obviously receives help from Giannis in immeasurable ways, but he has mostly created scoring chances for himself and is quickly becoming one of the more feared contested shot-makers in the league.
These elements give Budenholzer the unique ability to work a similar pass-heavy offense through Antetokounmpo, a traditionally high-usage player. So far, the game plan is working quite well — to say the least.
Take the play below. Antetokounmpo drives in transition, putting pressure on the defense. We know how that looks. But instead of a clutter in the paint, players move to specific spots around the arc. Sharpshooter Brook Lopez sets up in the corner, making himself available for a pass, and Eric Bledsoe sneaks in a screen to give him an open look.
Of course, this is early success through just seven games, and a lot could change. Other teams will scout the Bucks and attempt to push them back into bad shooting areas. The supporting cast could lose its way. Middleton is going to cool off a bit. (He’s shooting an insane 54.9 percent from 3-point range on more than seven attempts per game.)
But even if they do slow down, the Bucks are still in a position to make some noise in the East. Milwaukee has a coach who built a previous contender with this exact same system, an MVP candidate playing the best basketball of his life and a No. 2 option scoring at will.
The Bucks may never look quite as dominant as they did against the Wolves. But they now have the pieces and blueprint to make big wins less of a surprise and more of an expectation.
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