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Bucks still finding way to win despite some new issues

Milwaukee is keeping pace with the East elites, but has some issues it must resolve in the season's second half.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks recently snapped a 5-game losing streak.

The view of the Milwaukee Bucks from 30,000 feet is tranquil enough, based on the team’s ambitions for the 2020-21 regular season.

It’s the view from 30 feet that has so many fans nervous, media reps skeptical and opponents encouraged.

When Milwaukee faces the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night in the sixth game of its eight-game homestand, nearing completion of the season’s first half, it will be lugging more questions than answers. That’s not horrible, but it sure feels different.

In going 116-39 over the past two regular seasons, the Bucks didn’t necessarily have things figured out — it just seemed like it. Their collapse against Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 after leading the best-of-seven series 2-0 and their abrupt dispatching by Miami in 2020 from the conference semifinals jolted and exposed a group that had romped through 82 games one season, 73 the next.

The Bucks’ 19-13 season so far has been anything but a romp. Grind? At times. A meandering trudge through unknown woods with neither a map nor compass? That might be closer still.

Funny thing is, as unnerving as it might be to the team and its followers — the Bucks would have to go 37-4 to match last season’s record (and there aren’t 41 games left) — it was kind of predictable.

Best of Giannis this season

Take a look at some of Giannis Antetokounmpo's best plays in 2020-21.

And even though it was kind of predictable, it still is a little unnerving. Milwaukee keeps flipping that coin, with no other heads/tails outcome possible, frankly, until the middle of May.

Such is life for a team whose success or failure has been shifted entirely to the postseason. For all the roster changes enacted by general manager Jon Horst in the short offseason, for any adjustments coach Mike Budenholzer has made offensively or defensively, for whatever enhancements reigning two-time Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates made to their individual skills, this eight-ton boulder was going to be blocking their road through the regular season:

It’s the playoffs, pallies.

That’s why figuring out which is the “real” Bucks team at the moment — the flat bunch who dropped five straight recently or the guys who sandwiched eight victories around that skid — isn’t only challenging but sort of fruitless.

What appeared to be so real the past two seasons turned out not to be. Looked like gold, finished like iron pyrite.

In dropping five consecutive games from Feb. 10-18, losing to Phoenix, Utah, Oklahoma City and Toronto (twice), the Bucks shot 36.6% on 3-pointers and averaged 13 3-pointers. That’s a long way from 42.9 percent and 16.4, their numbers in victories.

They averaged only 42.4 rebounds, committed 21 fouls per game and had ratings of 110.3/118.3. Their opponents shot a cumulative 50.3%, 39.9% on 3-pointers and shot 23.8 free throws per game on 120.4 ppg.

The messages from Budenholzer and players throughout was to stay the course, learn and, as voiced by Antetokounmpo four losses in, not to panic.

“I say a lot of times when things go bad, that’s where you get better,” Antetokounmpo said when the skid hit five. “That’s where you excel, that’s where you improve. Or, you can turn the other way, just go home and quit. Or you can keep fighting.”

Somehow, the reassurances have been right, yet not all that convincing.

Game Recap: Bucks 98, Thunder 85

The Bucks toppled the Thunder on Feb. 18 to end a 5-game skid.

The current three-game win streak, by an average of 17.7 points, has been against OKC, Sacramento and Minnesota. So far, Milwaukee is 3-5 against Brooklyn, Boston, Indiana, Toronto and Miami (and has yet to play Philadelphia).

The Bucks have bounced back to be one of only three teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating (Utah and Phoenix are the others). They are among the top five in scoring, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, 3-pointers made per game, scoring differential and net rating.

Yet they rank 24th in defensive 3-point percentage, compared to 15th last season. They are 1-9 when they get outshot, 5-13 when the other team shoots 45% or better. The Bucks have won only one game all season in which they failed to score 100 points. And they are 0-10 when trailing after three quarters, a true measure of flatness.

Individually, there are few red flags. Antetokounmpo remains a force at both ends of the floor and will start again in his fifth All-Star Game. He and Denver’s Nikola Jokic are the only players averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game.

Khris Middleton, who joined “The Greek Freak” as an All-Star the past two seasons, was considered a coaches’ snub when he didn’t land a reserve spot in 2021. He’s statistically having a near-mirror season to 2019-20 (20.3 ppg, 5.7 apg) while again chasing that elusive 50/40/90 club in shooting percentages. (Only five players in NBA history have done it while averaging at least 20 points.)

During the five-game losing streak, Middleton averaged 16.6 ppg and was a member of the 40/30/70 club. With major offseason acquisition Jrue Holiday out, Middleton faced some aggressive double-teaming and coughed up nearly as many turnovers (4.4) as he had assists (4.6).

Holiday hasn’t played since Feb. 6 due to health and safety protocols. His status to face his former Pelicans team Thursday was unclear. Milwaukee has gone 4-5 without him, even as Holiday and the Bucks were still adjusting to each other prior to his layoff.

Center Brook Lopez has been more accurate than last season inside and out. Yet his scoring is off slightly, his free throw rate has declined and the second team All-Defensive pick in 2019-20 has a 46.2 block percentage (after 60.2% last season).

Donte DiVincenzo’s bouncy two-way play has been helpful, though his best role might be off the bench rather than starting at shooting guard with Wesley Matthews gone. The bench itself has been a mixed bag, with Bobby Portis as a feisty big with shooting range, D.J. Augustin sputtering with his shot and Torrey Craig finding minutes harder to come by.

All of which leaves the Bucks where, exactly? They might be learning and improving. Could be pacing themselves to peak for the playoffs and fighting for some focus in the meantime.

Mostly where they are now, though, seems to be in a quandary.

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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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