The NBA season is back and the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t be more thrilled.
After more than a month of open gyms and training camp, the games will finally count beginning with Milwaukee’s season opener Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center.
For the Bucks, it’s hard not to be excited after the preseason displays they put together over the past few weeks.
“It was a small sample size,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said, “but as a group, I think it was a great preseason.”
The Bucks unveiled a new, high-powered offense under coach Mike Budenholzer to devastating results during the preseason. Milwaukee ranked first in offensive efficiency at 115.0 points per 100 possessions and 10th in defensive efficiency (98.6 points per 100 possessions) as teams struggled to keep up with the Bucks’ offensive onslaught.
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The uptick in offense was driven by a new-found reliance on three-pointers. In four games, the Bucks averaged 40.3 three-point attempts (fourth in the NBA), made 16.5 per contest (third) and shot 41.0% on those tries (fourth). Against the Minnesota Timberwolves last Friday, the Bucks connected on 25 three-pointers, which would tie the NBA record in the regular season.
“It was great to talk to some of the guys who had been here last year and just talking about how night and day the offense has been,” center Brook Lopez said. “Getting up this many threes would have been unimaginable then and to see people do it so often with a high success rate is very promising.”
To be fair, all of the above statements come with a qualifier – they happened in the preseason. Starters didn’t always play against starters. Some starting-level opposing players didn’t play at all. Bench players who won’t get as much run in the future accumulated plenty of those numbers, some of which came in garbage-time minutes.
All the confidence the Bucks have built could still be fool’s gold, right?
“Of course there is a trap,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said when asked about looking too much into preseason stats and results. “But it’s just the preseason – it doesn’t count.”
As much as the numbers themselves don’t matter, the Bucks are still entering the season with plenty of confidence. Why? Because they believe in and have bought into the system coach Mike Budenholzer has installed. They know how they fit in it and recognize how it can work.
When Budenholzer emphasizes they should run to the corners on offense because there’s treasure to be found there, they’ve seen he’s right. They’ve observed the widened driving and passing lanes that have materialized and the open looks that have been available. The unselfish play that Budenholzer has encouraged has set the table for everyone; they’ve seen it in practice and experienced it in games.
The Bucks undoubtedly will run into roadblocks at times during the regular season, but their feelings of accomplishment and joy still do mean something. Following the rubric and having a good process, too, mean something.
“I don’t know if there is a ceiling (for the offense),” Lopez said. “The great thing about watching our offense through the preseason was just seeing, regardless of who we put out there on the floor, every unit was working together, playing together and playing unselfishly. …
“We were pretty consistent in what we were supposed to be doing out there as well through the four games. It was a good litmus test for us and I really believe there’s going to be a lot of great carry-over into the regular season.”
Another reason for Milwaukee’s confidence is the team is starting the season healthy. A few players experienced injuries during training camp, but Budenholzer is hopeful he’ll have all 15 players available for opening night, including his starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Lopez.
“A good mix of basketball IQ, toughness,” Budenholzer said of that starting unit. “I think we can be good defensively with that group. Get off to a good start. We can shoot it well, that group has a lot of shooting in it also. Multiple guys that can handle, play pick and roll and attack.”
With a healthy roster, a seamless adjustment to Budenholzer’s style and enough confidence to go around, the Bucks had a successful preseason by any measure. The next step, though, will be to translate that to the regular season when the stats, wins and losses all matter.
And it won’t be enough to just play better than last season. Looking to get to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001, the Bucks know their upward trajectory needs to continue all season long.
“Being in my sixth year, I’ve realized you’ve got to play your best basketball in the playoffs,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to play good basketball in the regular season, but you’ve got to play the best basketball in the playoffs.”