Giannis Antetokounmpo’s leap from All-Star to Monstar in 2019 represents the biggest difference in Milwaukee this season. But outside of the Greek Freak’s ascension, where can we credit the Bucks' rise from the No. 8 seed in 2017-18 to 60 wins and a 2–0 lead against the Pistons after Wednesday night's dismantling?The No. 1 seed out West blew a 31-point lead on Monday, yet Milwaukee continues to take care of business, relying on more than just their likely MVP.
A look to the sidelines is the fastest way to spot a difference this season. Jason Kidd’s turnover-obsessed defensive scheme cost him his job in January 2018, and Joe Prunty proved to be one of the most ineffectual interim coaches in recent memory. Enter Mike Budenholzer. The Gregg Popovich acolyte won 60 games with the Hawks in 2014-15, helping a veteran Atlanta core reach its potential after middling results in years prior. Now armed with Giannis, Budenholzer is doing the same with a once-in-a-generation talent, getting the most out of his talent, and unleashing a lethal attack.
Milwaukee sported the statistical profile of a solid, albeit unexciting offense in 2017-18. It had the league’s No. 9 offensive rating, but ranked No. 15 in points per game in part due to a bottom-third pace. The Bucks ranked No. 25 in attempted threes and No. 27 in made threes. They were slow and limited from deep, clogged the middle and seldom thrived in transition.
But all of that's changed under Budenholzer, as the Bucks have morphed into an offensive juggernaut. They ranked No. 4 in offensive rating during the regular season and No. 2 in pace, leading the league with 118.1 points per game. They were second in threes made and threes attempted. Four-out lineups spread with Giannis are more the norm than a rarity. The additional space has allowed Antetokounmpo plenty of room to glide like a gazelle, planting mammoth strides into the paint. Jabari Parker elbow jumpers are now Brook Lopez 30-foot bombs. It’s a modern offense fitting for the next decade’s defining star.
It’s difficult to glean much from Milwaukee’s first two playoff games in 2019. Detroit entered the first-round matchup in danger of a sweep, then lost Blake Griffin. Andre Drummond has a plus-minus of -77 through two games. Thon Maker is 0–9 from three. The Pistons aren’t functional without Griffin. The Reggie Jackson error (er, era) will mercifully end in 2020. Congratulations won't truly be in order unless Antetokounmpo and Co. advance past Boston in the second round.
Yet even amid a severe mismatch, Games 1 and 2 did provide reassurance regarding Milwaukee’s Finals chances. Philadelphia was a mess through the first half of Game 2 against Brooklyn, and the Raptors fell to Orlando in extremely Toronto fashion in Game 1. Much like James Harden and the Rockets, though, Giannis and the Bucks controlled home court in emphatic fashion. Antetokounmpo has 50 points in just 53 minutes. Eric Bledsoe led all scorers with 27 points on Wednesday night. It’s hard to imagine the Bucks experiencing any speed bumps on their road to the next round.
Milwaukee is firing on all cylinders to start the postseason, and Budenholzer deserves much of the credit. He’s been steady yet inventive, placing full trust in Giannis while pushing to expand his boundaries. Perhaps the rest of the league will rue Milwaukee’s hire in a few years as Antetokounmpo leads a fastbreak dunk on one possession than drains a three the next. The Bucks were the league’s best team by a significant margin in the regular season. They’ve continued to follow Budenholzer’s blueprint through Game 2, remaining a premier contender for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the process.