Antetokounmpo has occasionally caused a real rage this season, kicking a signal in November and hitting his hand while arguing a call to commit a technical foul at Christmas, but more often his relentless physical has left opponents whining. Milwaukee has won 22 games for two digits and 13 games for at least 20 points, allowing Antetokounmpo to continue with its personal cargo management version by enjoying quarter rooms full of garbage from the comfort of the Milwaukee bank.
While the Bucks are unquestionably the best team in the NBA, they could also be the most misunderstood. They have played so well and so consistently for three months in a row that much of the conventional wisdom about them should be reviewed.
For starters, they’ve won a tenfold increase in exaggeration, even if Mike Budenholzer, their intentionally bored coach, often sounds like he’s auditioning for a second career reading dream stories in a meditation app. Milwaukee’s point differential is plus-12.4, a brand that outshines all teams in NBA history, including the Golden State Warriors 2015-16 of 73 wins and the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 of 72 wins. The Bucks are on their way to 71 wins, a remarkable feat that borders on the absurd since none of their players, not even Antetokounmpo, is among the 50 best in the NBA in minutes per game.
Like those Warriors 2015-16, the Bucks are elite in both offense and defense, and they stand out for driving the pace. Milwaukee leads the league in rhythm, with virtually all rotation players encouraged to throw triples at the start of the launch clock. Antetokounmpo is a terrifying quick jump for just one man, but the Bucks deplete and break opponents with their perimeter attack on the entire team and a sharp ability to make good decisions while playing fast.
Consider: Bucks are never discussed as a “superteam,” however, they are averaging more points per game (119.6) than any team in the past 25 years, including all iterations of Steve Kerr’s Warrior dynasty. Emphasize “team” instead of “super,” and suddenly the label fits Milwaukee.
Therein lies the root cause of the wrong identity of the Bucks. Because Antetokounmpo lacks a top 20 teammate and because the team fell out of the playoffs with four straight losses to the Toronto Raptors last year, Milwaukee discards too easily as a regular season team that depends too much on his only Superstar or his offensive system.
Could not be farther from the truth. The Bucks are deep and talented, and their complementary pieces, including stellar striker Khris Middleton, among them, fit very well. In addition, systems are inherently a good thing in the NBA. What recent champions have thrived from chaos or failed to build logical support structures around their core players?
The “regular season team” talk is too simplistic too. The Bucks not only opened the playoffs with a 10-1 start last year, but they did what the great postseason teams do: eliminate average competition and last longer than a good competition.
In the first round, Milwaukee criticized the Detroit Pistons and made their center, Andre Drummond, unable to play. In the second round, Milwaukee humiliated the Boston Celtics, adjusting to his intelligent defensive scheme in Antetokounmpo and continuously applying pressure until Kyrie Irving broke.
The only obstacle that Milwaukee could not climb was Kawhi Leonard, the best player in last year’s playoffs who performed at the highest level. Even then, the Bucks led the finals of the 2-0 Eastern Conference and took Game 3 to double overtime on the road. The end of that series said more about Leonard’s talent and the resolution of the Raptors than about the Bucks, who were in unknown waters at the time.
Although last year’s record does not guarantee that the Bucks win the 2020 title, they are the prohibitive favorites of the East. They are better and have more experience, and their main rivals in the conference have stagnated or retreated.
The Bucks record is not perfect: the Christmas defeat against the Philadelphia 76ers was an obvious stain, but they have won victories over the two main Western contenders, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. Their routine brilliance continued Thursday when they achieved another high-profile showdown by building a 27-point lead against the Celtics before staying to claim a 128-123 home victory.
Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, but he paid no attention to his typically striking numbers, and chose to focus on the casualties of the second half of Milwaukee.
“I was a little upset after the game,” Antetokounmpo said, his focus and priorities clear. “Speaking in the locker room, it was like,” Guys, we were up for 20, we won, but this is not going to reach the playoffs. “We have to play for 48 minutes. Coach Bud came in here and it was very hot. He was angry. “That’s good. He really doesn’t care about this game or the next game; he cares about how we can improve and how we can be good for 48 minutes. That’s our goal. Instead of stepping on them, we let them come back easily.”
If they played in a bigger market or if Antetokounmpo was a more thirsty self-propeller, perhaps the general conversation about the Bucks would be deeper than the cautious respect they usually get paid. It is time for your perception to change anyway. After compiling a 97-28 record under Budenholzer, the Bucks deserve to be feared and revered.