The Bucks were coming off three straight losses to the Pelicans, Bulls, and Rockets, when they entered the fourth quarter up 15 points on the Cavs. The Milwaukee offense had been phenomenal all night, and LeBron was on the bench and it was turning into exactly the kind of win the Bucks needed. Then Cleveland's second unit started chipping away. Jeff Green was getting to the line, Jae Crowder was throwing his body all over the floor, Dwyane Wade knocked down a pair of threes, and Tristan Thompson helped anchor a defense that had come alive for the first time all night. Milwaukee had no answers for any of this. Shots stopped falling, no one was stepping up, and when LeBron checked back in with 3:40 left, the Cavs were down just one. Everyone knew how this was going to end, and on the heels of last week's losses, it was going to hurt.
But the Bucks answered. Eric Bledsoe hit a pull-up jumper and a three, and then he blitzed down the court to find Tony Snell for yet another three. Giannis Antetokounmpo sealed the win scrambling for a loose ball, grabbing it from LeBron. He turned to finish through contact for a three-point play, pounding his chest while LeBron tried to gather himself on the ground.
Both the outcomes in play Tuesday—giving away a winnable game in the most frustrating fashion imaginable, beating the best team in the East with Giannis pounding his chest—explain the Bucks this season. The Bucks are the biggest wild card in the NBA.
Milwaukee has gone 12–7 since acquiring Eric Bledsoe in early November. His scoring helps in crunch time and his ability as a secondary creator next to Giannis has helped weaponize everyone else. That deal worked. On any given night now, the Bucks have enough size and speed and athleticism to make life difficult for any team in the NBA. Giannis is 23 years old and he's one of maybe four or five players in the league who is just completely impossible to contain. He's also surrounded by a cast of wings who complement him close to perfectly.
If this team made the Eastern Conference finals, I wouldn't be even a little bit shocked. The Finals would be stunning, but even that timeline feels more plausible than, say, a Raptors run through the East. When the Bucks are good, they are better than almost anyone. And yet the frontline remains thin as ever, Jason Kidd's defensive scheme is an ongoing adventure, and as scary as the Bucks can look, they're also dysfunctional enough to make you wonder whether this season ends with a sixth seed and a first round playoff exit.
The end of the Cavs game Tuesday was good example of what makes this team baffling at times. With two seconds remaining Khris Middleton was fouled and hit a free throw to go up three. Then, instead of going up four and icing the game, Middleton, an 87% free throw shooter, pegged a line drive off the rim to miss it intentionally.
This sequence was almost better than the game itself, in part because it led to a solid two minutes of shock and horror from the NBATV announcers. They completely ignored the final buzzer as they tried to make sense of Middleton's free throw, and Grant Hill sounded personally offended by the tortured math of the decision. "Whoa, oh, ohhhhh," Hill said as Middleton released it, "Why would you miss it like that?" Later, after another minute of confusion, Greg Anthony said: "But that seemed like a strategy..."
Yep. Anyone who's followed the Bucks this year knew it was a strategy. And sure enough!
Now this was a relatively harmless decision either way—the Cavs had no timeouts, so the odds of converting off the miss were very slim—but it's one of those moves that makes you wonder about the broader logic driving the Bucks. And Tuesday wasn't an isolated incident.
A few weeks ago there was another tortured late-game fouling strategy when Kidd decided to foul an 85% free throw shooter with Bucks up four points (but hey, Reggie Jackson missed his free throw, so that worked too!). On other nights, there are puzzling substitutions, puzzling starting lineups, and maybe most importantly, Kidd's insistence on playing DeAndre Liggins might be the most effective defense there is for Antetokounmpo. It's all part of the Bucks experience.
Even as the supporting cast gets better, Giannis becomes unstoppable, and the whole team looks more competent, there are still Bucks decisions that seem to defy logic. And while Milwaukee's defensive scheme—aggressive trapping that's supposed to create turnovers but also creates lots of open threes—has been tempered in recent weeks, that transition remains a work in progress. They are giving up fewer threes than last year, but this year Bucks opponents are hitting 39% of the threes they do take (league-worst), while the Bucks are also surrendering the sixth-most attempts at the rim. At its worst, Kidd's defense almost looks like anti-Moreyball, a scheme that will concede all your threes and lay-ups in exchange for turnovers.
In late November, for example the Jazz hit a season-high 18 threes on the Bucks. Afterward Joe Ingles said, "Yeah, we just scouted how they play and executed." After that same game, Kidd said the problem was effort, not the scheme.
That sequence reminded me of what it felt like watching Randy Wittman coach the Wizards. I lived through that era in D.C., and there were three defining qualities of Wittman's tenure: 1) baffling lineup decisions, 2) questionable schemes, and 3) vague references to effort and failure to compete whenever the team underachieved. Wittman's inability to adapt happened on offense, not defense, but the disregard for lineup data and basic math was about the same. Kidd is checking all of the boxes.
All of this becomes a lot more interesting when juxtaposed with the team Milwaukee has this year. They may seem young because of Antetokounmpo, but Thon Maker is the only other rotation player under 25 years old, while players like Middleton and Bledsoe are right in the middle of their prime. The East is wide open past the Cavs, and with due respect to the Celtics and Wizards and Raptors, the Bucks at their best—swarming all over the floor, hitting from the perimeter, Giannis dunking on people—might be the only team that can actually push Cleveland in a playoff series.
If it doesn't happen this year, the presence of Giannis alone makes Milwaukee a very real threat to take over the East whenever LeBron's reign ends. At some point in his career, it seems clear that Antetokounmpo will be the most dominant player in the NBA.
There are huge questions to answer in the meantime. What will the Bucks do with Kidd? He seems like he's squarely in the Mark Jackson/Randy Wittman zone, but he's also wielded a tremendous amount of power in Milwaukee the past few years. Also: How will Jabari Parker fit into the lineup when he returns, or will they trade him before we can find out? Parker hits restricted free agency this summer, and given the contract he's likely to command and the awkward fit next to the Bucks wings, his future is more complicated than you'd think. Just the past few weeks there have been rumors that the Bucks could try to move him in a deal for DeAndre Jordan. That seems like the type of move that won't be enough to make Milwaukee a legit title contender over the next few years, but it could definitely lead to a first round playoff series win and make the Kidd question even more complicated.
They could also try to package Parker and Tony Snell for something Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles from the Jazz. That deal would give Milwaukee more shooters around Giannis—probably a better fit than DeAndre Jordan—but it wouldn't be the sexiest return for a beloved former No. 2 pick. It could be a tough sell for fans as Milwaukee moves into a new stadium next season. And what if Jabari is more valuable than anyone they could find on the trade market, or anyone they could sign? What if betting on his talent is still the best option for a Bucks team that needs one more star to give Giannis a real chance at a title?
None of these questions have easy answers. The only thing that's become clear over the past few months is that the Bucks have one of the brightest futures in basketball. And before they get there, they have easily the most complicated present.