Even though it was gruesome to watch, Gordon Hayward’s injury helped maintain Eastern Conference parity. Absent an All-Star in Hayward, the Eastern Conference will be as close to competitive as it can get, from top to bottom. The Hayward injury had the side effect of transforming a rival team into the Cavs closest competitor. The time has arrived for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Last night notwithstanding, the Bucks have started the season in a scintillating manner, on the back of MVP-like performances from Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks rank first in the league in terms of average player height at 6-feet-7 and a quarter, an asset suited to the modern game which bases itself on the ability of players to don the roles of multiple positions.
Having taken down the Celtics in the second game of the season, the Bucks have shown a resilience which could undoubtedly land them a top-four spot in the depleted East. Their loss to the Celtics last Thursday (and to the Thunder last night) did point to a crumbling defense but as the younger players are given more game exposure, these woes will ease.
However, many remain skeptical regarding how much further Milwaukee can progress, though in light of the Hayward injury, it would be far from surprising to see the Bucks snatch a slot in the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly even put up a reasonable fight against the Cavaliers.
Even when he’s not playing up to his potential, Khris Middleton makes a huge impact for the Bucks. A hamstring injury restricted him to just 23 starts last season, though in those games, the team went 17-6. Given Giannis’ lack of a three-point shot, Middleton has transformed into the perfect complementary player, and shot at a league-wide sixth best rate of 43% from deep following the All-Star break.
To start the season, however, Middleton has gone just 3-for-19 from deep. The Bucks have still managed to sustain the fourth most efficient scoring offense in the league despite Middleton’s woes, with an efficient field goal rate of 0.548%.
On top of this, 74.8% of the Bucks jumpshots last year came uncontested. Should more of these fall into the hands of Khris Middleton, while Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon witness rises in their shooting rates as most sophomore rates do, expect these percentages to soar. The Bucks are on track to become the epitome of efficiency in the league.
Much of their efficiency has come alongside the realization of the talents of the team’s focal point in Giannis. Giannis’ drives have become seemingly unguardable, given his outer-worldly athletic abilities for his 6’11 frame, though he has yet to develop a consistent jumpshot. Last season alone, while the league-wide average for points from outside the paint was 54%, the Bucks shot at a conference-low 47%. Prioritizing inside points has evidently reaped benefits this season, as an average of 54 points have come in the paint each game for the Bucks, which is good enough to place third in the league in this category. However, this statistic comes into play most strongly when considering the weaknesses of the Bucks likely post-season competition. With players like Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis manning the interiors for the Celtics’ second unit, and Ian Mahinmi and Mike Scott doing the same for the Wizards, the Bucks competition has extremely underwhelming big men backups.
Given that Giannis has demonstrated his ability to sweat it out for extended periods of time when it matters most, as he played nearly 41 minutes a game in the Bucks playoff series against the Raptors last season, he will certainly exploit his oppositions lack of depth and thus gather a large number of easy points when the starters rest. It’ll be extremely difficult for oppositions to keep up with the Bucks if Giannis scores on them at such high rates when their stars rest.
While it was always going to be just a matter of time, Giannis looks like he’s ready to take the next step in his career. His incredible talent which has reaped averages this season of 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals aside, it takes more than that to win playoff series consistently. A team needs a player who has the ‘clutch gene’. The Wizards themselves don’t seem to have one, seeing as star John Wall missed all eleven of his shots in their devastating Game 7 loss to the Celtics last year.
If Giannis’ game-winning fadeaway against the Knicks last season didn’t confirm his possession of the clutch gene, his steal, dunk and block last week to seal a win over the Blazers did. The Bucks now have a player who they can consistently rely upon in the dwindling minutes, which could be the X-factor in those tight series that are bound to arise.
The Cavaliers have thus far demonstrated a lack of interior defense with Kevin Love, traditionally a power forward, donning the role of center, and he undoubtedly lacks the athleticism and speed to adeptly guard the length of the Bucks.
The Bucks were thwarted by LeBron’s Cavaliers in their second game of the season, though it was a closely fought encounter for much of the first half. It will be interesting to see how the two teams match up again on November 8th, as their chemistry should be greatly improved. It looks like it could be a prelude of the match up we will be witnessing come mid-May as the Eastern Conference Finals gets underway.
photo via llananba