The Milwaukee Bucks stumbled out of the gates to start the season, as they couldn’t find their rhythm on either end of the floor and were hovering around .500 for the first few weeks of the year. Despite the addition of Damian Lillard, the Bucks offense looked rather pedestrian and the drop on defense swapping Lillard in for Jrue Holiday was much steeper than expected considering the continued presence of Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
However, this past week has shown some real signs of life for the Bucks, particularly on offense where they are starting to figure out how to make the Dame-Giannis partnership flourish. The two stars preached patience all camp, noting it would take some time for them to find their spots together, but the early going was even rougher than anyone on the outside anticipated. This last week as they’ve ripped off a four-game winning streak, the Bucks have started to show what the high-end potential of that pairing can be. Lillard has started to percolate, averaging 28.3 points and 9.3 assists over the last four games, while Giannis has scored 35 or more in six of his last eight games played, including back-to-back 40 point games this week.
That is a rather terrifying prospect for opposing teams, as the two superstars are starting to figure out how to play off of one another and maximize the space provided by the other. Giannis has handed Lillard the keys in the fourth quarter and the results have been pretty incredible, as the Bucks offense that for years found itself stuck in the mud late in games is now thriving. After their win over Dallas this week, Antetokounmpo offered a fascinating quote about how he’s challenging himself to embrace a lesser role to enhance the team’s impact and allow him to be the best version of himself by playing off the ball (via Jack Maloney of CBS Sports).
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not used to it in that capacity,” Antetokounmpo said. “Like usually when Khris [Middleton] or Jrue [Holiday] had the ball, or whoever in the past, Malcolm [Brogdon], had the ball down the stretch, it was give and take. They had the ball for two, three possessions, then I had the ball for two, three possessions. We can go three, four, five minutes down the stretch without me actually touching the ball.
“I’m not used to that, but through all the new things that we are doing in this team and not being in my comfort zone I believe that I’m gonna be able to become the best version of myself. I’ve been playing throughout the whole season out of my comfort zone… I’m happy that we can have a guy that can have the ball down the stretch and make plays, create for himself, get to the free throw line, create plays for us, it takes a lot of pressure from me and a lot of attention from me too.”
The results speak for themselves, as Milwaukee’s offense has been terrific in clutch situations this year with Lillard taking on the creative burden. The defense still can be an adventure, as the Bucks are 22nd in defensive rating, but even on that end they’ve seemed to steady to boat a bit. This week will provide their biggest test yet of the newfound rhythm, as they face the Celtics on Wednesday night in a showdown of two of the East’s very best.
Where do the Bucks find themselves in this week’s DIME Power Rankings after a hot streak? Let’s find out…
1. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-3, Last week: 1)
The Wolves keep rolling right along. They did finally have their win streak snapped by Phoenix on a back-to-back the night after Rudy Gobert got thrown in a sleeper by Draymond Green, but they bounced right back with wins over the Pelicans and Knicks. Karl-Anthony Towns is starting to find his place in this offense and is taking some of the burden off of Anthony Edwards.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-4, Last week: 8)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has picked up where he left off last year and looks like an MVP candidate again, putting his talents on full display as he closed out the Warriors in overtime this week, scoring 10 of the Thunder’s 13 points in the extra frame to lead them to a win. Prior to his overtime takeover, it was the Chet Holmgren show in Golden State as he had a career-high 36 points and put his full talents on display, highlighted by a spinning, fading three at the buzzer to force OT.
3. Boston Celtics (11-3, Last week: 3)
Losing in OT to the Hornets isn’t great, and they have looked a bit less machine-like of late, with their last three games all decided by one possession. That said, they are 2-1 in those games and Jayson Tatum continues to play at a truly outrageous level. They have three solid opponents coming up this week in the form of the Bucks, Magic, and Hawks that should give them a good midseason test.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (10-4, Last week: 11)
The offense is humming, but we haven’t seen them do it against a high-level opponent just yet. That changes on Wednesday against Boston where we will get a good gauge of just how far Milwaukee’s come on that end.
5. Miami Heat (9-5, Last week: 7)
Miami’s 7-game winning streak got snapped in the weirdest way possible when they blew a 22-1 lead to the Bulls, of all teams. They exacted revenge the next night in Chicago and continue to look excellent in Tyler Herro’s absence. Duncan Robinson has been terrific, Bam Adebayo is steadily dominant, and Jimmy Butler is starting to look like Jimmy Butler again after a bit of a slow start to the year.
6. Denver Nuggets (10-4, Last week: 4)
The Nuggets are still dangerous as long as Nikola Jokic is on the floor, as we saw when they dismantled the Clippers in the fourth quarter to start the week. However, they also aren’t nearly as dynamic without Jamal Murray and his absence is shining an even brighter light on their bench concerns.
7. Orlando Magic (9-5, Last week: 13)
The Magic are on a four-game winning streak led by their budding star frontcourt duo of Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, but they’re also getting some really good two-way contributions from Jalen Suggs, who is finally looking comfortable now that he’s healthy. Suggs building confidence on offense would be huge considering how important he is to Orlando’s defense, and if he can bring them some dynamism to the backcourt opposite Wagner and Banchero, they’ll be very dangerous.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (10-4, Last week: 2)
The Sixers will feel they let one get away against Cleveland on Tuesday night as Joel Embiid had a shot to win it in regulation that missed. They’re still playing well, but ended up on the wrong side of a couple coin flip games this week. A big road trip coming up with Minnesota and Oklahoma City will give a glimpse at how quickly they can regain their footing.
9. Sacramento Kings (8-5, Last week: 10)
They had a hiccup to end the week getting blasted by the Pelicans, but the Kings are back on track with De’Aaron Fox back in the lineup. The three-point shooting around Fox and Domantas Sabonis is also starting to perk up a bit, which is the difference in the Kings being a good offense and a great offense.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-6, Last week: 18)
The Cavs picked up their fourth straight win with an OT victory over the Sixers on the road (without Donovan Mitchell) and with Darius Garland back in the lineup they’re starting to look like the team a lot of us expected coming into the season. They’ve also found a diamond in the rough in two-way guard Craig Porter Jr. who had a tremendous week and might find himself on the full-time roster eventually.
11. Los Angeles Lakers (8-6, Last week: 14)
The Lakers are taking care of business against the bad teams, which is a must if you want to be a playoff squad. What LeBron is doing at 39 years old is unbelievable and they’re starting to see Austin Reaves regain his form, which is critical given the role he’s being asked to take on this year. We’ll get to see if they can carry this hot streak over against three top-half teams this week as the Mavs, Cavs, and Sixers are up next for L.A.
12. Phoenix Suns (8-6, Last week: 20)
The Suns look good when Devin Booker plays. That’s pretty much been the difference this season, as he opens up the offense so much by the way he can create off the bounce in a way no one else on the roster really can. His growth as a facilitator has really shined this season, and the two-man game between he and Kevin Durant (who continues to play lights out) is the stuff of nightmares for opposing defenses. Durant’s passing, particularly out of doubles, has also been terrific and defenses have a very hard time determining how to approach him when Booker is also on the floor with him.
13. Indiana Pacers (8-5, Last week: 9)
There are a lot of teams in the NBA right now that do the “good at offense, bad at defense” thing, but no one is more successful with that model than the Pacers. Indiana is disgusted by the thought of defensive stops and every game is wild because of it. Tuesday’s 157-152 win over the Hawks to clinch a quarterfinal berth in the In-Season Tournament was the perfect encapsulation — they didn’t put up any resistance but Tyrese Haliburton and company just made sure they got more buckets than Atlanta.
14. New York Knicks (8-6, Last week: 15)
The Knicks had a three-game winning streak halted by the Timberwolves on Monday, but they’re taking care of business against the bad teams and winning enough of their coin flip games to stay above .500. R.J. Barrett is easing his way back into the rotation and the Knicks will hope he can regain his early season form when he was red-hot.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (7-7, Last week: 21)
The Pelicans were a 1-point loss to Minnesota away from a perfect week and they’ve seemingly gotten the offense back on track even in C.J. McCollum’s absence. Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have figured out how to coexist again and what was once a painful offense to watch at times is starting to look much more dangerous. Matt Ryan had been a bright spot but he’s set to miss time, which means rookie Jordan Hawkins becomes even more important as a floor-spacer.
16. Dallas Mavericks (9-5, Last week: 5)
The Mavs had a tough week as their schedule stiffened up as they had their lone win against the Wizards, with losses to the Pelicans, Bucks, and Kings. The defense is bad and any decent-to-good offensive team will put up 125+ on them right now. Sometimes Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving’s offensive exploits are enough to still win, but at some point they’re going to have to figure out the defensive end of the floor if they’re going to be an actual threat in the playoffs.
17. Atlanta Hawks (6-7, Last week: 12)
The Hawks are doing that thing again where they just keep bouncing around the .500 mark and are currently on a 3-game losing streak. Their record in close games isn’t great and that continued on Tuesday in the wild shootout against the Pacers. In positive news, playing Indiana saw Trae Young find his form offensively, but the defense has some leaky spots and they’ve got to figure out how to close out games if they’re going to take a step forward.
18. Los Angeles Clippers (5-7, Last week: 24)
The Clippers finally snapped their losing streak with back-to-back wins over the Rockets and Spurs since Russell Westbrook volunteered to move to the bench. They get one more game with the Spurs before some real tests to see how much they’ve improved with the Pelicans, Mavs, and Nuggets all in a row.
19. Houston Rockets (6-6, Last week: 6)
Houston came back to earth with three losses this week, but those losses were by a combined 12 points. Alperen Sengun remains incredibly fun to watch, the defense seems legit, and they’re learning in real time how difficult it is to close out good teams. Still, this is a far more competitive and competent team than recent years and they are capable of beating anyone on any given night.
20. Brooklyn Nets (6-7, Last week: 17)
The Nets aren’t good and they aren’t bad. They’re just kind of floating in the middle, which is fine but not particularly exciting. They just lack some juice (and some depth) to feel like a real threat, but are also competitive most nights.
21. Golden State Warriors (7-8, Last week: 19)
Steph Curry is playing some of the best basketball of his career and the Warriors are still under .500. Draymond Green is out here throwing folks in chokeholds and getting suspended, Klay Thompson is a non-factor, and the fan base has had enough of Steve Kerr’s refusal to give the young guys a chance. The good news is Andrew Wiggins seems to maybe be shaking free of his slump, but the Warriors could really use to string together a few wins to get the vibes back up.
22. Toronto Raptors (6-8, Last week: 16)
The Raptors are the Raptors. The offense is tough to watch (unless they’re playing the Pistons or Wizards) and they want to play slow and lean on their defense, but they aren’t really good enough on that end to make that a viable strategy. Scottie Barnes has been terrific and remains the bright spot, and maybe that means they’ll finally make some moves and try to build an actual coherent roster around him as the centerpiece soon.
23. Chicago Bulls (5-10, Last week: 22)
It’s really a testament to how bad the bottom quarter of the league is that the Bulls still land at 23. They are sinking quickly, with Zach LaVine very clearly wanting to be anywhere but Chicago, and if it weren’t for the weirdest comeback of the season they’d be on a 5-game losing streak.
24. Utah Jazz (4-10, Last week: 23)
The Jazz just don’t have enough right now on offense and can’t stop anyone on defense. Lauri Markkanen is tremendous, John Collins has been solid, and Keyonte George looks like he could become a solid two-way guard if he can figure out the whole shooting thing. Other than that, there’s not a lot to be excited about right now.
25. Charlotte Hornets (4-9, Last week: 25)
The Hornets somehow beat the Celtics in overtime to snap a four-game skid, and there are some intriguing pieces on this roster, headlined by LaMelo Ball, but also with Brandon Miller showing flashes and Mark Williams looking like a solid starting center. At some point you’d expect them to look at moving Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward to try and further embrace the youth movement, barring some unforeseen big run coming over the next month or so.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (3-10, Last week: 26)
Memphis’ injury report could field a really strong starting five. Marcus Smart and Luke Kennard are the latest Grizzlies to hit the injured list, and it’s just bleak in Memphis right now. Santi Aldama is letting it fly, so that’s kind of fun, and Ja Morant will be back after 12 more games.
27. Portland Trail Blazers (3-11, Last week: 27)
The Blazers have lost eight in a row, which is what happens when an already bad team is missing key players. Hopefully Scoot Henderson will be back soon and Anfernee Simons is back doing some drills after thumb surgery and should be back in December.
28. San Antonio Spurs (3-11, Last week: 28)
The Spurs are bad, but Victor Wembanyama does a couple things each night that make you laugh out loud. That’s really the ideal season for the Spurs who are learning lessons, playing through problems, letting Wemby do fun stuff, and moving towards another lottery pick at the moment.
29. Washington Wizards (2-11, Last week: 29)
The Wizards are entertaining, if nothing else. At least, they’re entertaining to an impartial observer — Wizards fans probably are going crazy watching some of the mistakes they make — and I hope the NBA’s All-Vibes Team continues to give us funny clips all year. On the positive side, Bilal Coulibaly rocks.
30. Detroit Pistons (2-13, Last week: 30)
The Pistons almost snapped their losing streak against the Nuggets, but came up just short and now sit at 12 straight losses. Ausar Thompson is outrageously fun to watch play defense, but they really need Jalen Duren back to declutter their frontcourt minutes.