ATLANTA – At 41 games in, the midway point of the season, there’s a substantial enough sample to strongly argue that the Milwaukee Bucks have vaulted into the ranks of the NBA’s elite teams during the 2018-’19 season.
At the time they landed in Atlanta early Saturday morning ahead of their game against the Hawks at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at State Farm Arena, the Bucks had compiled quite the impressive résumé.
Milwaukee leads the NBA in scoring differential at plus-9.1 points per game. That’s 2.5 points better than the second-place Boston Celtics at plus-6.6 point per game. The Bucks also lead the NBA in net rating, which represents the difference between offensive and defensive efficiency and is regarded as a strong indicator of team strength. Milwaukee is plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions with the Celtics again trailing in second at plus-6.6.
With a record of 29-12, the Bucks are off to their best 41-game start since the 1980-’81 team opened the season 30-11. This season, that record is the second-best in the NBA trailing only the 32-12 Toronto Raptors, which the Bucks have beaten in two of the three matchups between the two Eastern Conference leaders. And Milwaukee’s record isn’t just fool’s gold from fattening up on the bottom of the East. The Bucks own a 10-5 record against teams that entered Saturday with 25 wins or more.
As the Bucks embark on the second half of the regular season, here is a look at some of the team’s superlatives over the opening 41 games.
134-111 win at Golden State on Nov. 8
Coming off their first lopsided loss of the season two days prior in Portland, the Bucks thoroughly dominated the two-time defending champions in handing them their first loss of the season inside Oracle Arena. Eric Bledsoe had 26 points and six assists and Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points without playing in the fourth quarter. The two led the Bucks to a franchise-record 84 points in the paint.
The game was close through much of the first half, but an 11-0 run before halftime helped Milwaukee balloon its lead to 13 at the break. The Bucks didn’t slow down, doubling that margin heading into the fourth while the Warriors, who lost two-time MVP Stephen Curry to an injury in the third, couldn’t muster a counter-punch.
“I think teams are starting to take notice and realize that we’re not the Bucks that we were when I first got here six years ago,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said after that game. “We’re a totally different team even from last year. We’re going to come to play; we’re going to play hard.”
Honorable mentions: 121-114 win at Denver on Nov. 11; 143-100 win vs. Portland on Nov. 21; 104-99 win at Toronto on Dec. 9; 116-109 win at Houston on Jan. 9.
113-97 loss at Indiana on Dec. 12
There’s no shame in losing to the Indiana Pacers, one of the top three teams in the East at the midway point, especially at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The problem with this game, though, was it featured almost no redeeming qualities or built-in excuses for the Bucks.
They didn’t play well on either end of the court, they didn’t rally to take a lead or even make it competitive and it wasn’t like they were on short rest. They just got wallopped.
Facing one of the league’s top defenses, the Bucks had one of their worst offensive games of the season. Antetokounmpo put up a season-low six shots. Add in Indiana having their way on offense, and the Bucks struggled to make the game competitive. They never led, trailing by double digits most of the night in a game that brought out rare talk of offensive frustrations from both Antetokounmpo and a slumping Middleton.
Dishonorable mentions: 116-114 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 23; 136-134 overtime loss at New York Knicks on Dec. 1; 94-87 loss at Miami Heat on Dec. 22.
Antetokounmpo’s 44 points in Cleveland on Dec. 14
In the game immediately after the loss in Indianapolis, Antetokounmpo took out his frustrations on the lowly Cavaliers. He tied his career high with 44 points on 14-of-19 shooting while adding 14 rebounds and eight assists in 37 1/2 minutes.
Honorable mentions: Middleton’s season-high 30 points, including making 7 of 8 three-pointers, Oct. 22 vs. New York; Brook Lopez setting a career high by making 8 of 13 three-pointers at Denver on Nov. 11.
Calling Antetokounmpo the Bucks’ MVP is actually selling him short. He’s been one of the best players in the league, jumping to the forefront of the MVP discussion early in the season – a conversation he’s likely to remain in.
Antetokounmpo is efficiently having a career year at the center of Milwaukee’s offense. He’s averaging 26.6 points while shooting 64.7 percent on two-point shots and dominating the paint nightly. Additionally, he has a career-best 12.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists while playing just 33.6 minutes per game, more than three minutes per game less than last season.
Defensively, Antetokounmpo is the heart of Milwaukee’s elite defensive unit. More than just steals and blocks, he clearly affects opposing shots, with opponents shooting just 40.8 percent on shots he defends – the lowest percentage among Bucks starters – on 11.4 shots defended per game according to NBA.com.
For the most part, Wilson was a man of mystery during his rookie season. He barely played and didn’t publicly show much promise after being drafted with the 17th pick.
But following a productive summer and training camp, Wilson has become a player in whom his teammates believe. After missing the first two dozen games of the season due to a right hamstring injury, Wilson has broken out over the past month. He’s shined on the defensive end, where his athleticism, versatility, improved physicality rebounding have stood out.
Offensively, Wilson is visibly more confident, averaging 5.8 points per game while making 12 of 27 (44.4 percent) of his three-pointers. His emergence adds an unexpected level of depth and versatility to Milwaukee’s bench, which bodes well for later this season and in the playoffs.
Middleton’s winning three-pointer against the Bulls on Nov. 28
Antetokounmpo has a fair share highlight dunks this season, but those high-flying jams don’t necessarily make the difference between a win and a loss. However, this play did and it included numerous contributions.
Tied with the Bulls with the clock ticking down, Lopez drove for a layup. He missed and then couldn’t get a put-back attempt to go, with the ball flying high into the air. Bledsoe soared to tap the rebound out, where it found Malcolm Brogdon, who instead of shooting, dribbled toward the lane, pump faked and with his defender in the air kicked back to Middleton for a wide-open three-pointer that he rattled in with 5.2 seconds left.
Honorable mentions: Antetokounmpo’s dunks are numerous, but one against countryman Kosta Koufos of the Sacaramento Kings on Nov. 4 was especially vicious.
In the same vein as the Middleton three-pointer against the Bulls, Brogdon connected on back-to-back triples late against the Raptors that came off great ball movement and helped the Bucks leave Toronto with a victory Dec. 9.