The Milwaukee Bucks and two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo are built to win a championship this season.
Sound like something that has been said before, right? That’s because it has, on multiple occasions.
The Bucks were the top seed in the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons. But they failed to make it to the NBA Finals on both occasions, with opponents clogging the lane and forcing other guys to be playmakers while sending help defenders at the “Greek Freak.”
Milwaukee sought to counteract this strategy by bringing in Jrue Holiday in the offseason. A failed sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic made headlines, but this Bucks team should have enough in their arsenal to get the job done, anyway.
Antetokounmpo and head coach Mike Budenholzer are running out of excuses. It’s time to show out come playoff time.
The Holiday factor
There is no mistaking the impact Jrue Holiday can have for Milwaukee in May and June.
Holiday has been superb in his Bucks debut campaign, averaging 17.0 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field and close to 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The latter number is especially important. Opposing guards used to be able to help off Eric Bledsoe and send extra attention at Giannis. That is no longer the case with Holiday on the floor. He can make teams pay by knocking down open looks from the perimeter while also making plays in the pick-and-roll and spotting the open man.
Moreover, Holiday is a terrific on-ball defender who can guard multiple positions. He has been a noted defensive playmaker, averaging 1.8 steals per contest and ranking seventh in the league in deflections, per NBA.com.
Holiday is an absolutely vital presence for the Bucks as a guy who can score, play in transition and defend at a high level. He might make the difference in the backcourt.
Here’s another key element to this Bucks team: there is more scoring depth off the bench.
This is especially pertinent with respect to perimeter shooting. Pat Connaughton is only averaging 6.9 points per contest, but he is also shooting close to 40 percent from deep and can help clear the boards.
Bryn Forbes adds an important shooting touch, as well. Forbes is averaging 9.5 points and is shooting nearly 45 percent from deep on 4.8 attempts per game. Defenders cannot lose him or wander into space, because he will knock down open jumpers.
Forward Bobby Portis is arguably the most important piece. Portis gives the Bucks a bona fide stretch-4 off the bench and a guy equally capable of facing up and knocking down midrange jumpers or scoring around the rim. He sucks opposing bigs out of the lane and can be an asset in pick-and-roll.
There is also more backcourt depth. Both D.J. Augustin and Jeff Teague can slash and make plays for their teammates. They can soak up valuable minutes when Holiday or Donte DiVincenzo need breathers.
Fatigue might have played a role in previous Bucks playoff disappointments. That should not be a factor anymore. Milwaukee has assembled a deep and versatile roster that can score in a variety of ways and defend at a high level.
How will Bud adjust?
Ultimately, the onus is on Budenholzer to plan for more paint-packing defenses.
The Toronto Raptors forced Antetokounmpo to be a more perimeter-oriented player and used hard hedges during the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. The Miami Heat adopted essentially the exact same strategy in last year’s conference semifinals, also hounding Antetokounmpo by getting rips and deflections.
Budenholzer needs to mix and match personnel to ensure everyone gets involved and makes themselves available as a scoring threat.
One such strategy could involve using Antetokounmpo off the ball more and making him a cutter or screener. Perhaps the Bucks can even get him some post touches on the low block. Milwaukee will also assuredly attempt to get out in transition and avoid routinely being forced to operate in the half court.
Regardless, something has to change, either in how Bud schemes for these defenses or how Antetokounmpo chooses to attack.
There needs to be more trust in the rest of the roster, especially Khris Middleton–who is having another brilliant season–and Holiday.
In any case, the Bucks can no longer lament being a seemingly one-dimensional team. They have to find a way to get over the hump.