The Milwaukee Bucks have reached the 20-game mark of the season, representing the inexact quarter point of the 82-game season.
And what a 20 games it has been.
With a 14-6 record, the Bucks are off to their best start since 1990-’91, a season in which they also started 14-6. This year, that record is good for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference as well as the second-best winning percentage (.700) in the league. They’ve risen to that high level by leading the NBA in net rating (plus-10.5 points per 100 possessions), points per game (121.0) and rebounds per game (50.6) against a schedule that depending on the calculation used is considered to be one of the toughest thus far.
So how did the Bucks get off to such a hot start? Here are three takeaways from the opening 20 games heading into Wednesday’s 7 p.m. clash with the Chicago Bulls at Fiserv Forum.
The Budenholzer Effect
The expectation when the Bucks hired coach Mike Budenholzer in May was that he would take Milwaukee’s talented core and put those players in a system where their talents could be maximized.
So far, so good. Very good, in fact.
Budenholzer’s system, focused on locking down on defense, letting three-pointers fly and growing player confidence, has paid off quickly. The Bucks have gone from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to the sixth best, forcing opponents into the kind of low-efficiency shot chart analytics gurus fawn over.
“From opening night to now I think defensively there’s been stretches where we’ve, I think, been significantly improved in trying to be the team we want to be,” Budenholzer said Monday. “There’s been nights where we’ve regressed defensively, but on the whole, from Game 1 to Game 20, I’d say defensively there’s been significant improvement and that’s where want our focus to be.”
Offensively, the Bucks are the most efficient team in the league. They attempt and make the most three-pointers in the NBA, shooting at a respectable 35.8% clip. Before Budenholzer’s arrival, the Bucks were in the bottom third of the league in three-point attempts five years running. Even center John Henson, before his left wrist injury, is hitting outside shots, going 11 of 31 (35.5%) through 14 games after trying just 13 three-pointers in his six previous seasons.
But three-point shooting is not all they do. The Bucks also rank third in the league in points in the paint at 56.3, almost totally eschewing midrange shots.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a career year (more on that later). Khris Middleton is putting up strong numbers across the board while shooting a career-high 7.4 three-pointers per game and making 41.2%. Eric Bledsoe — shooting almost exclusively layups and three-pointers — is having the best shooting season of his career while recording more assists and fewer turnovers per 36 minutes than at any point in his career.
As important as anything else, every player in the Bucks locker room has latched onto Budenholzer and his staff — and their daily “vitamin” individual workouts — quickly. They know he values their hard work, respond to what they’re being taught and see the difference he has made in the team both on an individual and collective level.
Thumbs up on summer pickups
The Bucks mostly flew under the radar with the moves they made this off-season. Adding Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo didn’t send shock waves through the league. But those quiet moves have made major differences for the Bucks.
The new players have fit Budenholzer’s system perfectly. Lopez immediately slotted into the starting lineup at center and the 7-footer is doing his job as a floor spacer, making 37.3% of his three-pointers on 6.7 attempts per game.
Ilyasova, though he has missed the past two games due to injury, has provided frontcourt versatility off the bench as well as toughness on defense and on the boards. Connaughton has settled into a reliable rotation role as a three-point-shooting, shot-blocking guard, and DiVincenzo has given the Bucks something relatively new — a first-round draft pick who is able to capably jump into the rotation right away.
Antetokounmpo, an all-star and second-team all-NBA player each of the past two seasons, has taken his game to another level thanks in part to Budenholzer’s system and the roster general manager Jon Horst has put around him. Most notably, he’s taking advantage of the space afforded him by having confident, willing three-point shooters all around.
He’s had the ball in his hands more and is doing more with it, averaging 26.8 points per game along with career highs in rebounds (13.0) and assists (5.9). An already polished inside scorer, he’s become even more dominant in that area both on catches and off the dribble, making 64.5% of his two-point shots and ranking second on the team in effective field-goal percentage (58.1%) despite shooting just 12.5% on three-pointers.
Put all of that together and add the fact the Bucks are one of the top two teams in the East and Antetokounmpo has gone from the fringes of the MVP conversation to the current odds-on favorite.
The good thing for the Bucks, too, is that Antetokounmpo still has clear room to grow, including connecting on more of his jump shots and cutting down on turnovers, which means he could get even better as the season goes on.
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