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Bucks’ new 3-point-heavy offense makes them legitimate challengers to Celtics, Raptors in Eastern Conference

MINNEAPOLIS — With a minute and a half left in the first quarter of what would become an utterly unremarkable game Friday night between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, one play that perfectly illustrated how these Bucks have morphed into not just one of the most intriguing stories of this young NBA season, but also into a team that actually could crack into the top tier of the Eastern Conference.

Malcolm Brogdon brought the ball up the court and dribbled inside the 3-point line. Near the top of the key, he ducked to his left, spotted an open John Henson in the corner and shoved him the ball.

This is where things got interesting. During the first five years of his NBA career, Henson attempted a total of six 3-pointers. He made zero of them. Last year, his sixth year in the NBA, was a banner shooting year relative to the past five: Over the course of 76 games and nearly 2,000 playing minutes, Henson attempted seven threes. He even made one.

But during this offseason, the Bucks hired Mike Budenholzer as their new coach. In their first talk after the hire, Bud had a surprising message for Henson.

“When he got hired, he called me and said, ‘You should work on your corner 3. Shoot a lot of them. Every day. Nothing else,’ ” Henson told me before the Bucks embarrassed the Timberwolves, 125-95. “That kind of got the ball rolling. But when we got here at training camp, he wants you to shoot that shot, have confidence in it. Specifically corner 3s. And if you have a high-quadrant 3, or above the break, if you want to shoot it, shoot it with confidence.”

So when Brogdon passed Henson the ball with the Bucks up five at the end of the first quarter, Henson did not hesitate — even though there were 10 seconds left in the shot clock. He lifted up and launched a 3. And he drained it.

Henson made another open 3 late in the third quarter of the blowout, then still another deep into garbage time. That meant he’s had five made 3s in his first five games this season after making one in the first 391 games of his career.

No team looks more different this season compared to last season while bringing back primarily the same core of players than the undefeated Milwaukee Bucks. And no other 2018-19 team better exemplifies just how the modern NBA’s attitude toward efficiency — toward spacing the floor and taking the smartest shots, the ones that are either at the rim or outside the 3-point line — than these Bucks.

In other words, it looks like the most impactful non-LeBron James offseason acquisition in the NBA might actually be … Mike Budenholzer.

The Bucks have averaged 41.8 3-point attempts per game this year, tops in the NBA, and 39.8 percent of their points have come off of 3s, which is 0.1 percent behind the league-leading Rockets.

Compare the Bucks’ modern offensive system, which puts a premium on shots at the basket and 3-pointers, to the stale, antiquated offense from last season. Last season, the Bucks shot 24.7 3s per game, which ranked 25th in the NBA and is 15 fewer than they are averaging this season. Some perspective: That means the Bucks are taking one extra 3-point shot this season for every three minutes of playing time. Last season, less than a quarter (24.9 percent) of the Bucks’ points came off of 3-pointers.

From 10,000 feet up, the philosophy resembles what the Cleveland Cavaliers did the past several seasons with LeBron James: Take an all-world physical freak — in the Bucks’ case, Giannis Antetokounmpo — surround him with shooters, and give them the perpetual green light on open shots. The offseason acquisitions of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova didn’t exactly make waves in the free-agent market, but the two floor-spacing bigs fit exactly what Budenholzer wanted to do.

And Giannis has embraced it.

Check out these bonkers Bucks numbers that one NBA stathead, Dean Maniatt (@AllTheBucks), posted on Twitter before the Timberwolves game:

Last year, here’s how Giannis’ assists were distributed: 47.6 percent of his assists were to three-pointers, 18.6 were to mid-range shots, and 33.8 percent were to shots at the rim.

This season, 70 percent of Giannis’ assists were on 3s, while only 7.6 percent were on mid-range shots, and 22.3 percent were at the rim.

The Bucks are shooting fewer mid-range shots — the least efficient shots in the NBA — than nearly any team, averaging 6.8 mid-range shots per game. That ranks 29th in the league. Only the Rockets are shooting fewer than the Bucks. A year ago, MIlwaukee averaged 17.3 mid-range shots per game; 17 teams shot fewer mid-range shots than they did.

Even former President Barack Obama has noticed. When he made a campaign stop in Wisconsin on Friday, he told the crowd, “Giannis is ballin’.”

Just as it would be silly to put any faith in the standings or in advanced statistics so early in the season, it would also be silly to read too deeply into blowing out a team like the Timberwolves. Right now, there’s no more confusing team in the NBA, and judging from body language, no more confused and depressed team. The Jimmy Butler trade request shadows every game, and will continue to do so until he is shipped out of town. Karl-Anthony Towns seems all out of sorts. On Friday night, home fans were booing head coach Tom Thibodeau during introductions. They booed again when the Wolves were down 19 in the second quarter, and yet again when Jimmy Butler airballed a pull-up jumper at the end of the first half before the Timberwolves went into the locker room down 25.

But it would not be silly to read deeply into the hot start from these Bucks, one of four undefeated teams left in the NBA, and more importantly, how they have gotten off to this hot start (“Tonight’s exactly how we want to play,” Giannis said Friday). In just a few months, Budenholzer seems to have unlocked a key to Giannis’ game that Jason Kidd never figured out.

Bucks rookie Donte DiVincenzo had a feeling early on that this would be the case. The Bucks told him about their new direction during the draft process, that they were opening up their offensive end and that his versatility and shooting ability fit into their plans. It was also a lot like the system he played with the Villanova team that won the national championship by spreading the floor with excellent 3-point shooters.

“I was just telling coach the other day it’s kind of scary how similar it is,” DiVincenzo told CBS Sports. “Last year we spaced out every man. [This year] Brook’s popping on 3s, knocking down threes. Everything I did last year is translating to this year.”

What may be most remarkable is how quickly the Bucks made this transition. I asked Budenholzer about why that is, and whether keeping things simple is the key.

“[Simplicity in coaching] is something I believe in,” Budenholzer said. “If we can simplify things for players and get them in a position they are just playing and competing, I think that puts them in their best position to be successful. I’m very conscientious of not overloading them or giving them too much, and the follow up to that is keeping it simple. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

It really does seem like a pretty simple solution to unlocking the possibilities of a team that has one of the most physically dominating players on Earth. Giannis can be a black hole that opposing defenses collapse into. And when they do — when the gravity of Giannis dashing toward the rim causes two or three defenders to help off their man — he’s an incredibly willing passer.

So far it’s working perfectly. It may be too early to say that the Bucks are in the same tier as the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors; we are not yet two weeks into the season. But if this style of play continues, and if the Bucks continue to roll in the next few weeks, that will become a louder and louder narrative in the NBA.

“It’s simplicity: If you’re open, shoot it; If you’re not, pass, move, set a screen,” Henson told CBS Sports. “It’s worked for us. We’re moving the ball well. And it’s fun. Fresh new faces, fresh voices, that’s cool. Just a lighter environment.”

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