The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2019-20 season with a clear vision and expectation. Nothing less than a championship would do for a team with the league’s reigning MVP, a second All-Star, and a deep supporting cast that happily knew and filled their roles with aplomb.
When the NBA went on hiatus in March, Milwaukee had done nothing to shake those expectations and, if anything, made them stronger. Giannis Antetokounmpo, unfathomably, was playing better than in his MVP campaign, becoming a more deft distributor, trusting even more in those pieces around him to help lift him up, rather than him trying to always shoulder the load. Khris Middleton took another leap in his second straight All-Star selection, finding a way to bring back the efficiency he showed as a role player to his starring role, knocking down threes and midrange shots at clips that were both near the top of the league.
Around them, veterans and young players alike fit snugly into their roles. Eric Bledsoe pacing the offense, balancing a role as a distributor with violent attacks on the rim. Donte DiVincenzo emerging as a reliable two-way sixth man, George Hill providing a steadying influence of the bench, and the Lopez brothers tag-teaming opposing centers. The Bucks were a juggernaut, but for some, belief in this team won’t come until they’ve proven it in the playoffs and are in an NBA Finals.
Pat Connaughton (not yet in the bubble)
Friday, July 31 — 6:30 PM — vs. Boston Celtics
Sunday, August 2– 8:30 PM — vs. Houston Rockets
Tuesday, August 4 — 1:30 PM — vs. Brooklyn Nets
Thursday, August 6 — 4:00 PM — vs. Miami Heat
Saturday, August 8 — 8:30 PM — vs. Dallas Mavericks
Monday, August 10 — 6:30 PM — vs. Toronto Raptors
Tuesday, August 11 — 9:00 PM — vs. Washington Wizards
Thursday, August 13 — TBD — vs. Memphis Grizzlies
1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18 (6.5)
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21 (9.5)
4. Miami Heat: 41-24 (12.0)
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26 (14.0)
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26 (14.0)
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-34 (22.5)
8. Orlando Magic: 30-35 (23.0)
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40 (28.5)
Eric Bledsoe has struggled in both of the Bucks playoff exits the last two years, and they need him to play like the regular season version of himself if they’re to march to a championship. It’s not impossible to see how the Bucks could overcome another rough postseason from Bledsoe to win a title, but it makes life much, much more difficult on Giannis and Middleton. We know that teams are going to try and force the Bucks “others” to beat them and make Giannis’ life miserable every time he tries to enter the paint. Giannis’ passing this season has been much better, finding his teammates beyond the arc when defenses collapse and being more willing to kick out rather than charging into a wall of bodies, but that only works if guys hit shots. Bledsoe has been horrific shooting in the postseason the last two years — a year ago he hit just 23.6 percent of his threes in the playoffs — and teams will make sure his and others confidence is put to the test yet again. When he’s good and makes teams pay for sending so much attention to Giannis and Middleton, Milwaukee is damn near unbeatable.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
It’s the same question for the team as a whole as it is for Bledsoe: Can you be the same team in the playoffs you are in the regular season? We know Giannis is going to show up, but he’s going to need the rest of the team to show up and simply do what they have been all season. There’s not suddenly some tremendous ask of role guys once the playoffs rolls around in Milwaukee, they have their Hercules who is ready to shoulder that burden. However, when teams throw everything they can at him and he flings the ball out to the perimeter, will they be ready to knock down the same shots they did in the regular season? That question will determine whether they’re lifting a trophy in October or not.