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How The Bucks Can Take The Next Step
One month after the Bucks traded for Eric Bledsoe, I wrote a story about how the Bucks had a new Big Three. A fair number of people fairly felt that it was a bit early to call such a thing such a thing. But the numbers looked right to me (and the look looked right to me):
“In 255 minutes together, Giannis/Bledsoe/Middleton have thrashed their opponents by 72 points. That equates to a differential of +13.5 per 48 minutes. Only four other teams in the league currently have a three-man unit doing that in 250+ minutes: the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and 76ers. (Not coincidentally, the Bucks have a few other three-man groups based around Giannis, Bledsoe, and/or Middleton who also make that list. Collectively, these three are great, but individually they also have shown to be able to make other lineups elite as well.)”
Although at the time the Bucks were only half a game ahead of the eight seed in mid-December, and although the three had yet to really look in sync, they also had the look of a trio that had the stuff to be the first group of Bucks to earn such a status since Allen + Cassell + Robinson (a comparison that was blasphemous at the time to more than a few on Twitter).
“Slice it this way or that, the Bucks have still been outscored overall this season. But they are moving in the right direction. It is hard not to with Giannis, whose “off-game” now resembles something like his 25-point, 10-rebound, 4-assist, 2-block birthday performance against the Pistons. If the Bucks have a true big three or not, they have an ideal number one.”
This was all less than three years ago. It feels like so much longer, because… the Bucks were outscored on the season and fighting for the eight seed less than three years ago?
All three have fulfilled their two-way potential in leading the Bucks to the best record in the NBA for two straight seasons, and with that the talk about a Big Three has long extinguished because who cares the Bucks are on to bigger things.
Giannis, Middleton, and Bledsoe each had fantastic moments in the playoffs last season, as well as some trying times.
In his MVP speech after last season, Giannis reasserted his plan.
“This is just the beginning. My goal is to win a championship, as my dad taught me. Always want more and never be greedy. My goal is to win a championship and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Khris Middleton re-upped for five years and said the same.
“We are not done. The goal wasn’t to reach the Eastern Conference finals — we are on a mission to win a championship.”
Giannis is about to win his second straight MVP (or at least, he better be). Middleton is primed to make an All-NBA team. The Bucks enter the playoffs as co-favorites with the Lakers to win the title. Will they?
PER is a rudimentary, incomplete way to measure an overall performance, but it is a decent way to make a quick comparison, and Giannis has put up a 26.6 and a 26.5 in his last two postseasons. Those are elite numbers, not far off from his historical, dominant regular seasons. Most players dip from regular season numbers a bit in the playoffs, since the competition is stiffer. Great as Giannis has been in the playoffs, it is easy to picture him being even greater. And if he does get better in the playoffs, that will probably mean he is the best player in the playoffs. That would bode well.
Middleton has some red-hot playoff games and series to his name, most notably the first round scorcher in 2018 against the Celtics. All in all, his career playoff performance (15.7 PER) has largely evened out to match his regular season performance (15.7 PER). There is little to suggest that, overall to date, he has been a different player in one part of the season or the other. That makes sense. It evens out for most players. That also makes him an All-Star level (and also, straight-up All-Star) player. If he happens to get hot in the Eastern Conference Finals and stay that way for a couple weeks, look out.
I do know that when Middleton took that pull-up contested three in transition with seconds to go in regulation, down 96–94 in Game 3 against the Raptors last season, I thought it was going to go in. He shot 3–16 that night, and I still thought it was going in. I kind of always do, and it seems like he kind of always does too.
Bledsoe got by the Celtics last season, outplaying not only Terry Rozier but also Kyrie Irving, before falling to Kyle Lowry and the Raptors. Remember when Kyrie was a heroic, clutch, game-breaking playoff legend?
If you go all the way back to his Clippers days, Bledsoe has played about as well in his playoff career as he has in his regular season career. In his first two playoff years (back with the Clips), he was better than he had been in the regular season. He still carries a 16.1 overall playoff PER.
Fred VanVleet was not Fred VanVleet until exactly when he was, and not a minute before. Remember him in the first two rounds last season? He shot 3–25 (.125) from the field in the seven-game series against the Sixers, including 1–14 (.071) on threes. Remember what people were saying about Lowry before he stepped up against the Bucks and then the Warriors?
It is clear that these three can be the top three on the best team in the league. And that these three plus Brook Lopez — who seems to have rediscovered his three-point touch just in time, and who is one of the brilliant defenders in the league — can be the top four on the best team in the league. They have proven it over large spans of seasons. It feels like they still have their playoff peak, their playoff moment coming.
Can the Bucks be as great in the playoffs as the regular season, which is to say, the best team in the world? It is hard to say why not, and it might not be far off. It might just be, being warm at the right time. It might just be, being who they are.