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Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the Milwaukee Bucks were coming apart at the seams. A five-game losing streak (with three by double-digits) brought plenty of Giannis trolling, some quiet rumblings about whether Mike Budenholzer was actually the right coach for this team and plenty of hand-wringing about the actual ceiling of a team that has followed two juggernaut regular seasons with disastrous playoff wipeouts.
But, heading into the All-Star Break, things are looking decidedly up. The Bucks’ followed that five-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak, including a five-point win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. They currently hold the best offensive efficiency mark in the league and their defensive efficiency (the hallmark of their last two seasons) has crept back towards the top-10.
What’s changed for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks?
Some of this hot streak is progression to the mean but we’re also seeing some encouraging signs — if not for their ability to get deeper into the playoffs, then at least to avoid falling off before they even get there.
Giannis has been a monster over the last five games, averaging 35.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game, shooting 55.0 percent from the field and getting to the line 12.6 times per game. Some Bucks fans have been calling for Giannis to be getting more variety in his touches, less time spent attacking outside the 3-point arc against a set and static defense. We haven’t really seen it during this stretch — he’s had slightly fewer elbow touches and more drives during this stretch but he’s done a better job converting his drives into scoring opportunities. Over the past five games, 59.1 percent of his drives have resulted in a shot attempt or trip to the free-throw line, compared to 54.9 percent for the season prior to this winning streak.
We’ve also seen the Bucks slowly adapt to the absence of Jrue Holiday, who has been out for essentially this entire 10-game streak, the five wins and five losses. Khris Middleton and Donte DiVincenzo have both been more aggressive off the dribble over the five recent wins.
But the biggest difference for the Bucks has come at the defensive end. Through the first 29 games of the season, they were allowing an average of 110.8 points per 100 possessions, roughly league average. Over their last five, they’ve surrendered just 105.5. The Bucks have benefited from some struggling offenses — the Thunder and Timberwolves are bottom-five in offensive efficiency. But they’ve also held up against the Kings, Pelicans and Clippers who are all top-10 in offensive efficiency.
The Bucks’ defense has been giving up a lot of wide-open 3-pointers during this stretch and benefitting from some cold shooting from opponents but the defensive improvement can’t be attributed entirely to luck. Defending the paint is the core of their defense and they’ve been able to do that lately without fouling to an absurd degree. In Sunday’s win against the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 32 drives without drawing a single shooting foul (on the season they’ve drawn a foul on 8.3 and 9.1 percent of their drives, respectively). Between their foul avoidance and the increased aggressiveness on drives by their ball-handlers, the Bucks have outscored their opponents by 37 points at the free-throw line over their last five games.
There are no dramatic trends in their strategy or performance at either end, but it’s important to see the Bucks, in small ways, gravitating back toward what made them so good the past two years and seeing success. As Tom Ziller points out, the ultimate test for the Bucks will come in the playoffs and even if you’re not rooting for them the field is infinitely more interesting when they’re firing on all cylinders. They are looking much closer to that level right now and the top end of the East is suddenly looking a lot tougher.
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