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Bucks hoping to hit their peak at just the right time

Milwaukee has a new focus on strategy after spending the past two seasons dominating the regular-season standings.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo are still developing their on-court chemistry.

They’re losing more often, with a winning percentage (.621) that’s dropped by more than 100 points since last season (.767). Their offensive efficiency is better but not enough to make up for a decline in defensive efficiency. Their pace is down too. To reach their desired destination, The Finals, they likely will have to take to the road to face the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in their conference — a slap of reality for a group that had been No. 1 in the East, with homecourt advantage for as long as they needed it.

So yeah, the Milwaukee Bucks have the rest of the NBA right where they want it.

That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, anyway. That leaves it up to nervous fans and skeptical outsiders to decide for themselves just how seriously to take Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, coach Mike Budenholzer and the rest as the championship contender everyone thought Milwaukee was not just last season but in 2018-19 as well.

At which point the Bucks will spend approximately zero time trying to convince you either way.

“That’s kind of how we like things,” center Brook Lopez said last week after a convincing Bucks victory at Atlanta, the first of two on consecutive TNT Thursdays now. “The last couple of years we’ve been a very internal team. Our focus has been internal. We’re the same way this year. All the stuff going on outside our locker room, we’re not focused on that at all.”

Outside assessments, and specifically ceilings, projected onto the Bucks wouldn’t be telling them anything they haven’t already considered. No one knows better than them this has been a choppier season than their relative breezes through 2018-19 and pre-bubble 2019-20 — both of which ended in disappointment with playoff losses, respectively, to the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat.

The Milwaukee Bucks beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 124-117, as the race for the No. 1 seed is on in the Eastern Conference.

Antetokounmpo (left knee soreness) and Holiday (virus protocols) both have missed lengthy stretches, slowing the process of assimilating the latter’s tenacity at point guard with the former’s back-to-back Kia MVP specialness. Other new additions such as Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Torrey Craig (since traded) — and more recently,  P.J. Tucker and Jeff Teague — have been learning on the job how to play around the Bucks’ core and with each other.

There’s an old-faces-in-new-places component to 2020-21 for Milwaukee, too. Budenholzer and his staff tinkered with the offense that relied too heavily on Antetokounmpo with the ball taking on walls of defenders. The Raptors and the Heat in particular thwarted both the “Greek Freak’s” romps to the rim and his ability to penetrate-and-kick to shooters stationed around the arc.

This season, the Bucks tweaked their hot spots on the floor, as designated literally by blue tape reminders on their practice court. Most noticeably, they have incorporated the baseline for what they label “The Dunker” zone, an area to be manned as often as possible to pull individual bricks (defenders) out of the opponents’ walls. The wrinkle opens up new interior passing options as well.

Now add some defensive alterations, such as more frequent switching and the deployment of zone. Is it any wonder there would be a dip from what Bucks general manager Jon Horst called their “historically great” performances of the past two regular seasons?

It’s one or two steps backward to take several strides forward.

Said Horst in a Zoom media session this week: “If you consider — which every team’s had to deal with — a shortened training camp, the condensed schedule, the injuries that we’ve had, the things we’ve dealt with Jrue, with Giannis and some other guys, I think that to be in the third spot in the East right now, to be 14 games over .500, to have a Top 5 offense, a Top 6 defense, Top 4 net rating overall, we’re in a really good spot.”

Milwaukee beefed up its talent around Giannis Anteokounmpo this season in hopes of it leading to a long-sought Finals berth.

The Bucks feel they turned Antetokounmpo’s recent absence — he missed six straight games and seven of 10 from March 27 through April 14 — into a positive by easing their reliance on the do-everything, all-NBA wing. Clearly they’re better with him than without — 117.3 points per 100 possessions and 106.7 defensively vs. 111.3 and 110.0 when he’s out.

But playing more than 40 percent of their minutes (1,140 of 2,754) so far this season without Antetokounmpo has prepared them, if only for those inevitable playoff games where his aggressiveness has him sitting thanks to offensive fouls.

“If we play 40% of the minutes without him, there’s been a lot of positives in those minutes,” Budenholzer said this week. “It’s important that, whether it be Jrue or Brook or Khris and Donte [DiVincenzo] and these guys, there’s a lot of confidence in the locker room and a lot of belief in what they can do and what we can do collectively.”

So much so, they willingly played the final four minutes of their overtime loss to Phoenix Monday without Antetokounmpo after he cramped up to start that period. It was another keep-him-healthy, trust-the-others moment, win or lose (the Bucks lost, 128-127).

Things haven’t gone smoothly. The team that famously lost two games in a row just once in 2018-19 (then dropped four straight to Toronto in the East finals) has had three of those mini-losing streaks this season — plus two three-game skids and a five-gamer. But since the All-Star break, Milwaukee is scoring more, shooting better and fouling less.

“Our defense has trended upward most of the season,” Horst said, citing Holiday’s involvement and Tucker’s versatility. “We’ve continued to improve kind of game in and game out defensively. Offensively we’ve been good throughout the whole year. … If we can get healthy and we can kind of gel at the right time I think we have as good a chance as anyone.”

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Said Budenholzer: “I would say we’re not happy. Our habits need to improve. We need to be better. I’ve talked a lot abut our defense and I do think we’re getting better. I guess it would be more worrisome if we were regressing.”

The Bucks are healthy now, with none of the 17 players on their roster on the injury report when they faced and beat Philadephia Thursday in the first of two games vs. the Sixers at Fiserv Forum. Ben Simmons (illness) didn’t play, perhaps helping his Kia Defensive Player of the Year argument when Milwaukee scored 40 points in the first quarter and 77 in the first half.

Of course, in previous back-to-back sets against Miami and Boston, the Bucks looked impressive in the first game, then stumbled in the second. Doing it now against Joel Embiid & Co. would put them right back where they’d been, 3 1/2 games back of the Sixers but with only 13 games left.

They’ve got Brooklyn in a similar two-game series at home May 2 and May 4. But it’s possible, maybe even likely, they will hit the postseason having to face both the Nets and the Sixers without a homecourt edge to get out of the East.

Horst said his team didn’t begin this season with the idea of tinkering or pacing themselves into a lower seed. But if that’s the cost of the enhancements and prep work they’re pursuing through the first 72 games, so be it.

“I don’t think it was a guaranteed conceded part of the bargain,” the GM said. “It was a possibility and expectation that could be a result of our plans and what we were going to try to do.

“Yeah, we’re not historically great right now in the regular season. I don’t think any of us are worried about that. But I don’t think any of us intentionally said that we want to try to be the third seed. I just think we wanted to try to do things differently offensively, defensively, with the roster and hopefully have success at the right time.”

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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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