With their 126-123 loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks remain just outside the top four rankings in the East, and as we near the end of the NBA regular season, are there any- there any reason to worry about the defending champions heading to the playoffs?
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After securing the East’s best record two straight seasons before 2020-21, the Bucks, amid a shortened season due to COVID-19, entered the playoffs last season as the third seed. series of the Conference. That was no obstacle, however, as they fought their way to their first NBA championship in 50 years.
This season, despite the loss of PJ Tucker, the Bucks entered the 2021-22 season an improved team (on paper, anyway), and now that superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo felt like winning, many predicted the Bucks would come back-back.
Now, with just 21 games left on their regular-season schedule, the Bucks are fifth in the East — four games behind the conference-leading Miami Heat — and are just 5-5 in their last ten outings.
Is there cause for concern in Milwaukee, or does the team have enough veterans to defend their crown once the playoffs begin? We take a look at some of the Bucks’ pressing issues and try to figure out whether or not they should be worried.
Record in the clutch
The loss to Brooklyn was another L in that column for Milwaukee this season.
Unlike individual clutch stats, team stats aren’t based solely on match winners and such with the buzzer going off. Qualifying in the clutch refers to both a team’s ability to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter, as well as its ability to hold a lead.
So far this season, the Bucks have a sub-.500 record in those situations at 15-16. Their 6.4 points rank in the bottom three, just ahead of Dallas and Detroit.
Giannis picks up where he left off.
29 PTS | 14 RECs | 6 ASD pic.twitter.com/YDsm9ZG7iW
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 27, 2022
They are second to last in field goals attempted and made. A team with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (more on him in a minute) shouldn’t be that low in this department.
Level of Concern: Moderate.
Last season – and given they played fewer games – the Bucks were 13-15 in clutch situations and won the title. Antetokounmpo has proven he can do it in big moments
Khris Middleton was an underrated part of last year’s championship chase. When Antetokounmpo was injured, it was Middleton who came out on top in crucial moments against Atlanta and Brooklyn.
He went from a second-round draft pick to a three-time All-Star. He’s vital to Milwaukee’s chances of being consecutive.
He and Antetokounmpo represented the Bucks in this year’s All-Star Game. On the surface, Middelton’s numbers are pretty good despite a slight drop from last year.
There is no wrong season in itself, but his inefficiency and turnover rate is something to watch – he’s averaging a career-high 2.9 turnovers per game and his shooting numbers are the lowest since the 2018-19 season.
Level of Concern: Low
Middleton is a veteran player who knows what he has to do. He’s already proven that in the playoffs (umm, 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals on 39.0% shooting on three in the playoffs of the year last). He and Giannis will be ready when the playoffs roll around.
Brook Lopez’s injury
Lopez has played all 28 minutes this season. He injured his back in the season-opening win over (incidentally) Brooklyn and hasn’t been available since. Lopez underwent back surgery in early December, but no return timetable has been given and it seems increasingly likely that Lopez will not play again this season.
Prior to his injury, Lopez was a high-volume three-point shooter, rebounder and rim protector that Milwaukee badly needed. Since he came out, they’ve tried several players to fill that gap, including Luke Kornet, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Georgios Kalaitzakis and DeMarcus Cousins.
They brought in Serge Ibaka as extra depth, but in recent weeks we’ve seen more Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis in that position.
Level of Concern: High
Without Lopez’s ability to stretch the ground and provide invaluable defense, the Bucks may not be able to defend their crown. One of their most pressing needs at the trade deadline was a center, and they got Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka offers that flexibility and versatility, but Lopez has that familiarity. He knows coach Mike Budenholzer’s system and he knows his teammates. Integrating Ibaka at this late stage of the season could be difficult, to say the least.