The Milwaukee Bucks wake up at the right time

It’s been a bit of a sleepy season for defending champion Bucks. Their 3.6 net rating is the worst rating by a Milwaukee team since 2018. Injuries have kept the team’s best players from sharing the floor together, with only one (one!) Bucks roster having recorded more 60 minutes together. (The top Suns in the NBA have 10 of those rosters.) And even Giannis Antetokounmpo seems perfectly happy to perfect his father’s jokes instead of campaigning for his third MVP (despite having arguably the best season of his career). And yet, with only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, with all the question marks everywhere else in the East, the Bucks are starting to look more and more like the heavy favorite to return to the Finals.

Above all, Milwaukee is always an absolute force when its big three share the floor. Lineups with Giannis, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have a net rating of 10.4. And while the Bucks have generally slipped defensively this year, they’re still stingy when their top three guys are on the court. The Giannis-Jrue-Kris line has a defensive rating of 107.5, better than the fifth-placed Heat. Milwaukee is 33-9 when those three play together, a 64-game winning streak.

As for Milwaukee’s defensive slip, the return of Brook Lopez should help them in some matchups. Lopez is often a lightning rod during the playoffs when his drop coverage can feel like a roll of the dice. Yet he’s still hugely effective at forcing many scorers out of the paint and into hard shots from mid-range, a generally valid strategy against most players not named Kevin Durant. He is also an effective one-on-one defender against Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. And when Lopez is on the ground, Giannis is freer to move around and wreak havoc on the ball. After missing most of the season with a back injury, Lopez has played in the Bucks’ last seven games, including a 17-point outing against the Sixers on Tuesday. Milwaukee is 6–2 overall with Lopez in the lineup.

And on the wings, the Bucks made up for the loss of PJ Tucker by adding shooting and, well, Wes Matthews. Pat Connaughton is another Buck who missed part of the time due to injury. In fact, we still haven’t seen a Jrue-Khris-Giannis-Brook-Pat formation so far this season. Connaughton picked up where he left off from the NBA Finals, feasting on three openers and providing defensive instability. He’s shooting 40.1% on 5.5 three-a-night, making defenses pay every time they crumble on Giannis. Joining him is offseason pickup Grayson Allen, who is hitting 39.9% of his catches and shots from beyond the arc (on 4.7 attempts per game).

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Matthews, who was on the team in 2020 before spending a year with the Lakers, doesn’t offer the same girth, physicality or offensive rebound that Tucker did during the championship run, but he’s still a defender. bulldog who can tackle physical scorers. Matthews has better mobility and he’s really good at applying pressure on the ball anywhere on the pitch. The Jrue-Wes-Khris-Giannis-Brook roster only played 17 minutes together heading into Thursday’s game with the Nets, though I expect to see a healthy dose of them come playoff time when Milwaukee needs some extra play. ‘a stop.

At full strength, the Bucks have a tantalizing combination of top-end talent, shooting and defense. We also haven’t mentioned reliable veterans like Serge Ibaka, Bobby Portis and George Hill who can hold their own in a playoff. (Portis has been key this year replacing Lopez at center.) When you look around the East, Boston faces Rob Williams injury, Heat offense stuck in mud, Philly depth lacking and the Nets still aren’t. t a lock to make the playoffs. (And if they do, will Ben Simmons ever dress up?)

If there’s a question mark for the Bucks, it’s a familiar one: do they have a small-ball roster? For what it’s worth, in the Finals last year, only one Milwaukee roster that played more than 10 minutes didn’t feature Lopez or Portis. The same was true for the Conference Finals, and in the seven-game series against the Nets, Lopez was on the floor for all but one lineout over 10 minutes. Matthews and Connaughton should theoretically work alongside Giannis, Jrue and Khris when the time comes, with Hill and Allen also providing options for Mike Budenholzer. (Giannis has played 34% of his minutes at center so far this season, up from 12% last year. The Bucks have a 7.9 net rating in those stints.)

Ultimately, Milwaukee may not be the juggernaut it was in previous seasons. Still, in an East field filled with question marks, the Bucks seem to have the most answers. And with their league’s key players finally regaining their health towards the end of the season, Milwaukee could wake up at the right time.

More NBA coverage:
• The inevitability of Cade Cunningham
• Joel Embiid: ‘I thought I would lose him’
• LeBron and the Lakers better not reach the Play-In

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