If Christmas Day is when the NBA season really starts, or at least when casual fans start tuning in, then the Milwaukee Bucks made an emphatic opening statement. Those who have been paying attention already know that Giannis Antetokounmpo might win his first Most Valuable Player award, Mike Budenholzer might win his second Coach of the Year award, Brook Lopez has become “Splash Mountain” and Malcolm Brogdon basically never misses. Those who hadn’t seen much of the Bucks before their 109-95 win against the New York Knicks should understand that this is a truly elite team. Milwaukee hadn’t played on Christmas since 1977, but you can pretty much pencil it in for next season — and probably the year after that, too.
The Bucks didn’t play up to their standard for the full 48 minutes at Madison Square Garden, trailing by two at the end of the first quarter and going 3-for-18 from deep in the first half. Incredibly, they missed 17 — SEVENTEEN! — straight 3-point attempts in a 23-and-a-half-minute stretch and still built a double-digit lead in the third quarter. They did this by forcing turnovers, taking care of the ball and relentlessly attacking the rim.
This, however, has been a part of Milwaukee’s identity all season. Against this same Knicks team in October, the Bucks went 1-for-13 from deep in the third quarter and caught fire in the fourth, winding up with a 124-113 win. Regardless of whether or not the shots are falling, the players know they have to stick to the system that they’ve had drilled into them since training camp.
About that system: When it is clicking, it is beautiful. Budenholzer has never before coached a superstar like Antetokounmpo, and Antetokounmpo has never before had this kind of space. During the preseason, forward Khris Middleton raved about the vibe around the team, telling me that, from the new arena to the extremely efficient practice sessions, everything felt different. Most important, though, was the fact that Milwaukee suddenly had an offensive identity, with shooters stationed around the perimeter in order to make the game as simple as possible.
“We realized that we can’t be a team or we don’t have to be a team that is just pounding the ball in one spot, thing to take tough shots, isolation and whatnot,” Middleton said then. “We can move the ball. We can penetrate and kick and find open guys and get easier shots. That’s something that Bud preached to us all camp so far, and guys are starting to take notice of that and try to make it happen.”
The transformation took place so fast and so successfully that it has invoked comparisons to the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors. Milwaukee won its first preseason game by 34 points and won its first seven games of the regular season. It entered MSG first in net rating, second in offensive rating and, crucially, fourth in defensive rating. This is the statistical profile of a championship team, and, aside from the Bucks’ poor 3-point shooting, all the hallmarks of their 23-10 start were on display on Christmas: They protect the rim, they defend without fouling and they create high-value shots.
Antetokounmpo finished with 30 points on 13-for-21 shooting, 14 rebounds, three assists, four steals and two blocks. He had a highlight swat and a few dunks, but the play that most illustrates his brilliance took place quietly, early in the third quarter. A couple of steps behind the 3-point line, he saw his defender, Noah Vonleh, had backed off him completely, daring him to shoot. Antetokoummpo put the ball on the floor anyway, and, partially because the Knicks were distracted by the Bucks’ off-ball action, got all the way to the basket:
Before this season, Antetokounmpo could pull off stuff like that. His long strides, Westbrookian aggressiveness and never-ending arms allow him to finish in situations that most players cannot. The difference is that, now, he is not bullying his way to the bucket in spite of what’s happening around him. He is doing it because everything Milwaukee does is designed to make that kind of magic happen.
As expected, ESPN’s broadcast of Bucks-Knicks featured establishing shots of the Rockefeller Center and Saks Fifth Avenue. There was talk of how special it is to play at The Garden on a day like this. The stage, however, did not feel particularly significant: Milwaukee, which will face New York again on Thursday (8 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), could have put up 61 points in the second half against anybody, and Antetokounmpo dominates almost every time he steps on the court. If there is anything to take away from this Bucks win, it is that they can overcome slow starts and win even when they shoot 6-for-32 from 3-point range. Like all legitimate contenders, they have plenty of room for error.