- Despite not having the star power of other teams in the East, the Bucks boast one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best players on the planet, plenty of shooting and a coach that could lead them far into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
MILWAUKEE — Fiserv Forum is a nice addition to the collection of new NBA arenas, a $524 million slab of concrete planted in downtown Milwaukee replete with the usual amenities. It’s comfortable on nights like Thursday, when a sellout crowd braved 22-degree weather to watch the Bucks' 98-97 win over the Celtics. The way things are going, we may find out how well it runs in June.
The Bucks don’t generate the headlines of Boston or Philadelphia, don’t have the stars of Golden State and don’t have the magnetism of the Lakers, but believe this—they are really good. Thursday’s win was Milwaukee’s NBA-best 44th of the season, and 24th at home. They are led by arguably the best player on the planet, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been masterfully surrounded by a collection of shooters and coached by a man, Mike Budenholzer, whose philosophies align directly with this roster.
“The five-out stuff is really difficult when you think about how much attention you have to pay attention to Giannis with the ball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “The shooting around him obviously makes it that much more difficult. You could see when they hired him how it would be a perfect fit here.”
Thursday night won’t make anyone’s highlight reel. The Bucks and Celtics were noticeably sluggish in their first game after the All-Star break. Neither team cracked 37% shooting in the first quarter and the Bucks held a seven-point halftime lead despite committing 10 turnovers. It got fun in the end, with the two teams exchanging dagger three-pointers and Kyrie Irving starting to warm up. Only when Irving’s floater with time expiring rimmed out did Milwaukee seal the win.
“Two teams fighting, scrapping,” Budenholzer said. “[It was] kind of ugly.”
The Eastern Conference playoffs figure to be an all-out war, but at this point is there any reason to pick anyone but Milwaukee? They are young, yes, with little in the way of playoff experience, much less success. But this team just works. Antetokounmpo is simply a monster, overwhelming enough to barrel through defenders in the open floor and overpowering enough to take a Shaq-like power dribble from behind the basket and dunk over anyone on the floor. Bucks GM Jon Horst has surrounded Antetokounmpo with a cast of 35-40(ish)% three-point shooters, including Nikola Mirotic, the trade-deadline pickup who jacked up six threes in his first action in Milwaukee.
You remember Mirotic, right? The Pelicans' February acquisition last season? All he did in New Orleans was slide into DeMarcus Cousins's spot opposite Anthony Davis and make 43% of his threes in the playoffs. Milwaukee will be thrilled with similar results.
“With this team, it is easier, because all they want me to do is space the floor,” Mirotic said. “Create space for Giannis to get to the basket.”
Boston made just 38.2% of its shots Thursday, and oh yeah, did we mention Milwaukee is the NBA’s top defensive team? The star of the defense is Antetokounmpo, who can block anything, defend anyone and fills highlight reels with chasedown swats like the one he victimized Jayson Tatum with in the fourth quarter. But the next most important player might be Brook Lopez, the cement-footed 7-footer who has somehow emerged as a defensive anchor. Lopez has not suddenly become fleet-footed or aged into a better defender on the pick-and-roll. But he’s intelligent, experienced and long, qualities that have helped Milwaukee hold opponents to an NBA-low 57.2% in the restricted area.
“It’s hard to put into words how important Brook is to us defensively,” Budenholzer said. “One thing is the confidence he gives our perimeter guys. You can just feel it in timeouts or when we are prepping or getting ready. They have so much confidence in Brook and his ability to protect the paint and protect the rim. Keeping him on the court is critical to us.”
The Bucks didn’t make any statement on Thursday, just issued a reminder. Right now the playoffs run through Fiserv Forum, officially one of the NBA’s toughest place to win. Antetokounmpo is playing with confidence, and look out—his three-point percentage is in the high 30s this month. The Bucks will never be the team with the most star power. But they are ready to make the case that they are the best team.