Gary Dineen/Milwaukee Bucks
Why Are The Bucks So Good In The Clutch?
Precisely as you had watched in slow-motion a hundred times before, except now in slow-motion brought to real life, Manu Ginobili curled around a screen, drove to the hoop, leaned in for contact, fell back and to the ground, and got the and-one.
“John Henson is upset, with Tony Brothers.”
Four straight losses had the Bucks at 4–6 coming into the (deep, foreboding, San Antonio) night, and now the Spurs — merely winners of 230 of their last 270 home games — had pulled to within two points late in the fourth quarter at 89–87.
Narrator: It is at this part in our story when the dear Bucks frightened all the townspeople with an act of true effrontery: For, in the final 2:25 of the game, they did not permit the hosts to throw the basketball in the hoop ever again.
Only one team has been better in the clutch in the past 20 seasons than the current Bucks. (That one team was the 2008–09 Cavaliers, a 66-win club whose second best player, better known as the host of the Mo Williams Show, was Mo Williams.)
In 45 “clutch” minutes this season (defined as games within five points with five minutes or less to play), the Bucks have scored 122 points and allowed 75 — making them the most dominant defensive team of the past 20 seasons in the clutch. The Bucks are 10–3 in these closely-contested games, including wins in San Antonio and Boston.
But does it mean anything, or, is it just a random little run?
Curiously, the Bucks have played much faster in their clutch minutes (seventh-fastest in the league) than their usual pace (fourth-slowest in the league). Part of the explanation is that they have forced more turnovers than any team during their clutch minutes, leading to quick points. Even if the Bucks can’t count on forcing turnovers at quite that rate, if they can continue flipping late-game situations from the halfcourt, slow-it-down, hero-ball of NBA yesteryear to semi-transition basketball, they may be on to something.
The new big three (KGB, GEM, KEG, EKG, BAM, etc.) has carried them in these clutch situations — they have a combined +119 differential in 104 combined minutes. Giannis has been a game-breaker defensively with five steals and three blocks (think the Portland home game), Middleton hasn’t missed a free throw (18–18), and Bledsoe has hit shots (7–14 from the field) while going 7–0 in these games. But everyone has been on: Neither Brogdon nor Snell nor Henson has turned the ball over a single time in 70 combined minutes.
Numbers will fall back to earth. Results of close games tend to even out in the long run. But good-looking late-game proficiency headed by stars may also hint at what the core can do when under the pressure of, say, a playoff series.
That could be a generous reading of the situation. After all, in a bit of a dichotomy, the Bucks rank as the second-worst fourth quarter team in the NBA. In more than a couple cases (like the recent home win against the Mavericks), they have found themselves in close games late merely because they played with fire by not closing teams out earlier in the fourth quarter.
No team in the league has played fewer “clutch” minutes than the Rockets this season, namely because they are crushing teams in the first 43 minutes of games. Giannis, meanwhile, leads the NBA in minutes per game, while Middleton is sixth. The Bucks do not yet have the luxury of resting their stars in wins. But they are getting there: They have stars, they have wins.