The more often Pat Connaughton is involved in what the Milwaukee Bucks are doing, the better things generally go. With rookie guard Donte DiVincenzo nursing a strained left quadriceps and out for at least the next two games, there should be a steady dose of Connaughton in Milwaukee’s matchup with the Denver Nuggets at 7 p.m. Monday at Fiserv Forum.
During 12 appearances this season through 15 games, Connaughton’s two-way impact has been greatly felt by the Bucks, who brought the 26-year-old in via free agency in August. He ranks behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe in player efficiency rating and with a plus-5.0 on-off rating, he has been one of the most impactful players off Milwaukee’s bench.
“Pat’s been huge,” Middleton said. “He just knows how to play – he’s a smart player, athletic. He’s been doing a great job coming in, knocking down shots and making big-time plays on the defensive end also. He’s been a huge lift off our bench, especially when we’re struggling.”
Widely regarded as a three-point shooter, Connaughton (34.2%) is behind his career average (36.4%), but he’s helping the Bucks in other ways. Defensively, his hustle and athleticism have resulted in eight blocked shots – many of them on three-point attempts – which ranks second among Bucks guards behind Bledsoe (11) and most when standardized per 36 minutes.
“For me, it’s about making the winning plays, making the right plays, making the basketball plays and being aggressive whether it’s on defense or offense,” Connaughton said.
Offensively, Connaughton has been more than just a three-point shooter. He rarely turns the ball over, he gets offensive rebounds and he recognizes areas where he can exploit the defense.
One of those areas is by working in tandem with Antetokounmpo to make back-door cuts on Antetokounmpo’s drives. In the short time Antetokounmpo and Connaughton have been playing together, they’ve clearly developed a chemistry. Among Milwaukee’s two-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together, Antetokounmpo and Connaughton own the best net rating (plus-32.3 points per 100 possessions).
The core element in that relationship has been Connaughton’s willingness to communicate, especially when it comes to setting up those back-door cuts.
“He tells me whenever I drive the ball everybody’s looking at me, so he’s going to cut,” Antetokounmpo said. “But before he does it he always tells me, so when I drive the ball down I always know I’m going to have an outlet and it’s going to be Pat. He’s doing a great job of spacing the floor and being in the right place at the right moment.”
Through 15 games, the Bucks have established themselves as one of the best defenses in the NBA, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency. While it’s been a collective effort, coach Mike Budenholzer has consistently offered praise for Bledsoe, who has often matched up with the opposing team’s best offensive guard regardless whether that player is a point guard or not.
That decision has often worked out, including when Bledsoe did the lion’s share of work holding Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Stephen Curry to season-low performances. On Friday, Bledsoe was often put opposite Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who scored 15 points but went just 6 of 20 from the field.
“He’s doing it night in and night out,” Budenholzer said. “He’s taking really tough covers. His athleticism just stands out. I think everyone knows how athletic LaVine is, so to track him and stay with him, and make everything difficult (was huge).
“I think Eric has taken that challenge tonight and in the second half, (along with) a lot of other nights. We just keep talking about how important his defense is for us.”
Since arriving in Milwaukee last season, Bledsoe has consistently voiced the pride he takes from playing defense. He has enjoyed the nightly challenge in front of the Bucks’ defense. He also appreciates what that says about Budenholzer’s trust in him to handle tough assignments.
“I ain’t been around (Budenholzer) a lot, but I feel like he kind of knows me a little bit,” Bledsoe said. “He puts me against the best player on the opposing team because he probably knows that’s going to get the best out of me. …
“I’m going to get my (butt) bust or I’m going to step up to the plate.”