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'Randomness' from new coach Budenholzer gives Bucks fresh direction

Milwaukee switches up gameplan to thrive behind superstar Antetokounmpo

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It was all Mike Budenholzer could do not to break out a clipboard. But given the circumstances and the atmosphere at the Manhattan health club where his newest NBA team voluntarily had assembled, that almost certainly would have spoiled the mood.

“Basically there were no X’s and O’s,” Budenholzer said. “That was a little bit frustrating: ‘Hey, they’re all together …’ ”

But this wasn’t Budenholzer’s party. The Bucks — about 17 or 18 of the players along with their new coach and his staff — had been invited to New York in August by what started as a group text between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Matthew Dellavedova.

It was their stab at the sort of offseason workout-and-bonding thing James Harden did with members of the Houston Rockets in the Bahamas, that LeBron James had been doing for years in Miami. It was borne from an excitement to get going with Budenholzer, a new coach with a new system to be played out in a new building in 2018-19, and a realization that — with so many changes and adjustments coming their way — starting their trek along the learning curve could only help.

They started on a Monday, wrapped on a Thursday and will carry those four days through the weeks and months to come. Potentially well into May.

“The turnout was phenomenal,” Budenholzer told NBA.com before his team faced Toronto this week. “The thing that was interesting for me was, they just played pickup ball. It was a good opportunity for me and the assistant coaches to just watch them.

“Then we went to a couple dinners and spent time together. You hope that organic bonding and team time pays off. It was hard as a coaching staff to sit back and watch. But you get to kind of learn them, certainly on the court and then off the court too, some quality time.”

Budenholzer made no secret of his plans for the team and how he wants them to play when he was hired in May. A few of the players, such as Sterling Brown, got a glimpse and a feel at NBA Summer League. Still, it came together in New York, in the gym and over pasta in Little Italy, or wherever else they ate.

“Everybody in one place to play and learn each other before camp started,” Brown said. “It was just getting up and down, playing 5-on-5. They [the coaches] were getting a chance to see what we can do, learn our strengths. As well as us just talking to them on the side, different things they like and their tendencies.”

Said big man John Henson: “Everybody had to go in and show what they’d been working on. That’s probably when the threes started flying first and [we knew] the system would be different. Me personally, that’s when I started shooting threes and making ‘em a little bit.”

Coach Bud told me when he got hired, ‘Work on your threes and we’ll see what happens.’ That’s kind of been the motto: Let it fly.”

Bucks center John Henson

Henson talking about 3-pointers? Yeah, that’s different. The 6-foot-11 veteran was 1-for-13 on 3-pointers over his first six seasons. In Milwaukee’s first seven games this season, he’s already 5-for-13.

Henson always had a sweet left-handed hook shot in the paint and was strong with the tip slams and assorted put-backs. But 3-pointers?

“Coach Bud told me when he got hired, ‘Work on your threes and we’ll see what happens,’ ” he said. “That’s kind of been the motto: Let it fly.”

That’s sort of how the Bucks have approached this early season. They are the NBA’s only remaining unbeaten team, taking a 7-0 mark into Boston tonight. They have been having fun playing off and around Antetokounmpo, their Kia MVP candidate — and just as much fun playing without him in Monday’s 124-109 victory over Toronto.

The “Greek Freak” was cleared Wednesday from concussion protocol, the after-effects of an Aaron Gordon elbow last weekend sufficiently gone. But he goes into TD Garden for once sharing the marquee with his teammates, their coach and a style revamped and revised into something completely different.

Offensively, the Bucks have been playing through a funhouse mirror. Their scoring opportunities have been pushed to the extremes, everything deep inside or way outside, with the middle almost at the point of non-existence.

Their 40.6 3-point attempts per game rank second only to Houston (41.5) and account for 44.4 percent of their shots so far this season. Last season, they averaged 24.7, ranked 25th and shot threes only 29.7 percent of the time.

Inside the arc, but outside the paint, things have gone in the other direction. Milwaukee’s scoring on mid-range 2-pointers has dropped from 9.2 percent to just 2.6 percent. Middleton has cut his long twos from 19 percent to 2.2 percent.

The success rate has followed: the Bucks are making 64 percent of their attempts within eight feet of the basket and 38.8 percent from downtown, but only 28.2 percent of the 8-to-24-footers.

Defensively, their mission is straight mirror. The shots they eschew are the ones they push on opponents: Long twos, contested twos, twos shot on the move and, when that fails, tough 3-pointers with hands in shooters’ faces. Budenholzer and staff have tweaked their pick-and-roll defense to draw them in, as surely as they’ve altered their attack by spotting and spreading.

Budenholzer found the Bucks to be more “move-in ready” than some might have expected after last season’s unremarkable 44-38 finish spent with Jason Kidd (23-22) and interim coach Joe Prunty (21-16). He praised GM Jon Horst, though, for surgical acquisitions such as center Brook Lopez and forward Ersan Ilyasova, a pair of “stretch” guys who have helped widen lanes for Antetokounmpo and guard Eric Bledsoe.

A teaching aid that Budenholzer added to the team’s practice court — five boxes marked in thick blue tape, fanned out around the 3-point line — is a constant reminder to the players to space themselves, something to catch their eyes even in transition.

Despite the head start of the New York junket and players descending on Milwaukee soon after Labor Day, the learning, habit-building and habit-breaking continues.

“Absolutely,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “We love playing in this system. It allows us to use our IQs to make scoring cuts. But we have a tendency to overpass sometimes. We have to take the first open shot. And we had to break habits, like playing a lot of iso ball from the last couple years. It’s been tough, but we have guys who don’t have a lot of ego and want to play the right way.”

It’s all predicated on Antetokounmpo, who is stronger, looks taller, has dialed up his ferocity again and is the axis of so much Milwaukee does. He literally is working in the middle of the floor, running a rut from rim to rim, cleaving opposing defenses, the ideal spot from which to find his teams’ shooters.

The better we can make the people around him, that’s going to make him rise more than anything.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, on Giannis Antetokounmpo

He’s not a point forward as much as a point problem. Already, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan and Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse have likened the Bucks star’s rim runs to LeBron James’ downhill express.

“The biggest thing with him is just somehow stopping the freight train in transition,” Nurse said. “He comes off and the floor is spread, and it’s like [James] and him keep on coming. They go right through your numbers and you’ve got to stand in there and take it.”

As Antetokounmpo said previously: “I can do a lot of things in the middle.”

He’s averaging 25 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 30.7 minutes and his 35.1 usage percentage leads the NBA. That’s why the most uncharacteristic of their victories — yet potentially the most significant — was their handling of Toronto Monday at Fiserv Forum.

Neither Antetokounmpo nor the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard (rest) played, but the outcome looked eerily like a typical “Greek Freak” production. Cushy final margin, no lead changes after the first quarter, 19-for-45 3-point shooting for the home team and a forward — Ilyasova this time — contributing 19 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes.

No, Ilyasova didn’t initiate offense with end-to-end dribbles. But what Budenholzer’s calls the “randomness” of his team’s offense was on full display. Thon Maker, at 7-foot-1, was the big guy making the unlikely 3-pointers. The Bucks’ guards grabbed 23 of the team’s 49 defensive rebounds.

Randomness isn’t a term coaches traditionally embrace — it’s too subject to whim and sounds undisciplined — but with the stigma of missed 3-pointers all but gone from the NBA, it reflects, offensively, the reactive nature of “take what the defense gives you” and always allows for that vaunted extra pass.

“It’s kind of funny,” Budenholzer said, “it’s really more about everybody participating and everybody being involved. The great Chicago teams when Tex Winter and Phil Jackson were there — the triangle was just amazing. I know Michael Jordan was great, but everybody touched the ball, everybody cut, everybody moved. It was just so hard to guard. And some of the really good San Antonio teams.” (On which Budenholzer was coach Gregg Popovich’s right-hand man, of course.)

“Philosophically it’s what I gravitate toward. Similar in Atlanta. Now trying to make it make sense for this group of guys.”

Randomness also means tolerating some bad stuff, though Milwaukee has had only one game so far where it shot worse than the 33.3 percent from the arc (13 of 43, 30.2) in last week’s home victory over Philadelphia.

“Oh yeah. sometimes it’s ugly,” Budenholzer said. “It looks terrible and you’ve got your hands over your eyes. I’d say you tend to have a few more turnovers than you’d like (17.1 per game, third-most). But you see a lot of growth in players and a lot of confidence come with players.

“That’s going to give Giannis an even better chance to be special. The better we can make the people around him, that’s going to make him rise more than anything.”

And with him, the franchise.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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