On Monday night, the NBA’s last two unbeaten teams will square off to see which will remain supreme atop the league standings. The game will feature two of the best players in the world, strong supporting casts and teams that have handily worked their way to 6-0, each winning by an average margin of 10 points or more.
This game isn’t happening in Oakland, Boston or Houston, and LeBron James isn’t involved. Rather it will be played at Milwaukee’s gleaming new Fiserv Forum, where Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will host the Kawhi Leonard and the new-look Toronto Raptors at 7 p.m. in what has become one of the more highly-anticipated games on the NBA’s October calendar.
“I love those games,” Antetokounmpo said. “The Raptors haven’t lost. They have one of the best players in the league and (one of the best) teams. So we’ve got to come out there and play our best basketball and try to win.”
In the Eastern Conference, no teams remade themselves in a more positive way this off-season than the Bucks and Raptors. Milwaukee started by hiring coach Mike Budenholzer and then outfitted him with weapons that worked in his system by bringing in Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton.
Budenholzer has wasted no time unlocking the talent that has lay untapped in the Bucks’ roster the past few seasons. With shooting and space everywhere on offense, the Bucks are the highest-scoring team in the Eastern Conference (119.3 points per game) and rank ninth in offensive efficiency.
Antetokounmpo, despite only playing 30.7 minutes per game, is putting up monster numbers with 25.0 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Khris Middleton picked up where he left off last season and is shooting a blistering 57.1% from three-point range on 42 total attempts over six games.
As well as they’re playing on offense, the Bucks have been even better defensively. They’ve toned down their aggressiveness and have focused on helping each other on defensive rotations, forcing teams into low-efficiency shots and ending possessions with rebounds. The change has been profound, with the Bucks going from one of the worst rebounding teams to one of the best while ranking as the second-best team in the league in terms of defensive efficiency.
Yet, they still think they have room to grow heading into Monday’s clash.
“You can fall into that trap (of putting too much importance on one game),” Middleton said. “It’s a big game, definitely. … It could be a statement win, but at the same time, it’s still one game early in the season. Teams are still trying to find themselves. We’re still trying to learn ourselves too. But it’s been a great start to the season – 6-0 so far, 7-0 would be great.”
Like Milwaukee, Toronto used the off-season to go all-in on an overhaul. The Raptors fired NBA coach of the year Dwane Casey following another premature exit from the playoffs and replaced him with assistant coach Nick Nurse. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to net Leonard, the 2014 Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs, as well as Danny Green.
Nurse, who was credited with reshaping Toronto’s offense last season, has hit the ground running in his first year as a head coach thanks in part to the team’s acquisitions. Leonard, who missed all last season with a mysterious right quad injury, is back to looking like one of the best two-way players in the league. Green’s exceptional three-and-D skills have crossed the border to Canada with him.
Of course, the Raptors were already in a strong position before the trade. They won 59 games last year on the strength of their deep bench and despite trading DeRozan and Poeltl, still kept that depth. They also retained their all-star point guard Kyle Lowry, who despite his initial unhappiness about DeRozan being shipped off has been excellent this season, averaging 19.8 points while shooting 52.8% on three-pointers and distributing a league-leading 10.3 assists per game.
“That’s my guy,” Bucks rookie Donte DiVincenzo said. “He comes back in the summertime; we used to play at Nova all the time. It’ll be cool to finally be out there in an NBA jersey against him.”
Monday’s battle of unbeatens represents the start of a challenging pair of games for the Bucks, which will travel to Boston for a clash against the Celtics, the team that knocked Milwaukee from the playoffs last year and entered the season as the overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Conference.
It’s early in the season, but games like the next two will give the Bucks a clearer picture of where they stand. They also represent an opportunity to get a leg up on potential tie-breakers, especially since the Bucks only play the Celtics three times this season instead of four.
As exciting and buzzworthy as these games are – particularly Monday’s – Budenholzer was loath to project too much onto the importance of games in October. Well, NBA games at least.
“I think the Dodgers and Sox are playing one right now,” Budenholzer, who grew up a Dodgers fan, said Saturday night. “That’s where I am now, I want to go watch the game and we’ll start thinking about the Raptors tomorrow.”