MILWAUKEE — The NBA is wide open this season, as you may have heard pundits say a few thousand times. The era of the superteam is over, and there are half a dozen (or more) teams with a legitimate shot at winning a championship.
Milwaukee beat Boston on Thursday. The Bucks built a 27-point lead in the first half, took a foot off the gas in the third and let the Celtics whittle it to six, started to care again and swelled the lead back to 19 at the end of the quarter before settling for a 128-123 win. The Celtics were down Jaylen Brown (thumb) and on the business end of a back-to-back, but the third best team in the conference never held a lead against the team that has run away with the top spot.
The Bucks were far from flawless. “We’d like to be better for 48 minutes,” Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s perpetually exhausted looking 50-year-old coach deadpanned after the game. Indeed, this game had some speed bumps. Kemba Walker torched the Bucks for 24 points in the second quarter, keeping Boston within shouting distance. That 19-point fourth-quarter lead evaporated quickly, and the Celtics were a Marcus Smart missed three away from making it really interesting in the final minute.
But there is so much to like about this Bucks team. In the first half, Milwaukee punked the NBA’s fourth best defense to the tune of 76 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo did Giannis Antetokounmpo–like things. The reigning MVP is in the middle of a monster season, posting the kind of numbers not seen since Shaq’s MVP year. He’s averaging 30 points per game, up from last season. He’s collecting 12.7 rebounds, up from last season. He’s making 33.2% of his threes, way up from last season.
He will win his second MVP in a landslide. If Antetokounmpo keeps up his current pace, he will record the most efficient season in NBA history. The two guys he will top: Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan.
But it’s not just Giannis. Donte DiVincenzo put up 19 points on Thursday, sinking four threes, a couple of them with one of the NBA’s best defensive players, Smart, draped all over him. The 17th pick in the 2018 draft, DiVincenzo has emerged as an invaluable role player. For years, Bucks GM Jon Horst tracked DiVincenzo. He admired DiVincenzo’s decision to play in the draft combine, a choice surefire first round picks rarely make. He recalled inviting DiVincenzo to a group workout before the draft. Several likely first-rounders, including Grayson Allen and Jerome Robinson, participated. DiVincenzo was battling an injury. Horst recalls DiVincenzo's desperately trying to get into the workout anyway. DiVincenzo’s sitdown with Horst and Budenholzer went so well, Horst said, that both left the room saying the same thing: This is our guy.
After an injury-riddled rookie season, DiVincenzo has delivered. So has Wesley Matthews, a key piece of Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. And Pat Connaughton, the Bucks' dunk contest hopeful (that’s a thing out here, you know) who is playing 18 minutes off the bench. And George Hill, the veteran guard making an NBA-best 51.3% of his threes. There was a fear coming into the season that the Bucks would lose something with the defection of Malcolm Brogdon. So far, those fears have been unfounded.
“The depth of the group stands out more than anything,” Budenholzer said. “It’s every night. Each of them has a different calling card, a different thing that makes them impactful. … I love Wes in the starting lineup, the defensive toughness … you put all that together and the team is doing well.”
The days, hours, even minutes leading up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline figure to be busy. A number of fringe-y players could be available (Davis Bertans! Robert Covington! Andre Iguodala!) with plenty of teams believing even a slight upgrade could make a difference.
But what about the Bucks? Eric Bledsoe probably keeps the front office up nights. Bledsoe struggled against Boston, and until he puts together a complete postseason, there will be concerns that he can’t. But the Bucks have Hill, a capable backup whose shooting complements Antetokounmpo as well as anyone on the roster.
The Bucks are one of the few teams in the league who should be perfectly comfortable standing pat.
As he headed out of the Fiserv Forum on Thursday, I asked Horst: What was the Bucks' mindset over the next few weeks? There is the stock answer every GM gives is some variation of we’re always looking or we’ll be opportunistic, but really—did the Bucks need to do anything?
“The stock answer is true,” Horst told me. “Of course we are going to look around. Of course we are going to do our jobs. But we are going to be incredibly patient and incredibly protective of what we have. I think that’s fair and I think that’s smart. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do anything or that we shouldn’t do anything. But we have guys here that have shown they can impact games.”
It’s easy to see the Western Conference playoffs unfolding as a series of seven-game street fights, the NBA’s Survivor. But the Bucks moved 7 ½ games ahead of Miami in the East on Thursday, 8 ½ ahead of Boston. The Raptors are treading water, and the Sixers are showing signs of crumbling. The Bucks are 20-2 at home, where a team is going to have to win to knock them off. They are on pace to win 70 games and do it with the highest point differential in NBA history. They will have the best player in every series and a supporting cast that Celtics coach Brad Stevens says “fits perfectly around him.”
They are clear favorites to win the conference.
They may be favorites to win the whole thing.